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“Opening My Eyes” to Suffering Inspires Professional Response

By Kelsey Hoffman, Lynchburg College (2015);  MSW Candidate (2017), Virginia Commonwealth University

I woke up to the ringing of my too familiar alarm clock. As I turned over, attempting to muster up the energy to start the day, I heard the comforting songs of the cicadas outside my window—it would be another hot day in the rural Arkansas Delta. As I got ready, I wondered what my day wouldl look like: would I be in the domestic violence shelter, food bank, or visiting pantries? The only certainty is that I knew I will be greeted by fifty familiar beautiful faces of high-energy children ranging from ages 0-18 for the Summer Feeding Program.

Thirty percent of Arkansas children live in poverty, with the most concentrated poverty being in the Delta—First Judicial District of Eastern Arkansas. In the rural Delta region, 24,850 individuals live in hunger and food insecurity, this is over twenty-five percent of the population. More than 200,000 children in Arkansas are at risk of hunger. What once was a thriving cotton community is now dy

ing as agricultural technology advances. The farms that employed a hundred people a decade ago now employ only ten due to the technological advances. The standard account of what happened is that factories shut down, white-flight academies were built after school integration, drugs and teenage pregnancy became the norm, and the area simply lost hope. I did not fully accept this account. My time spent in the Delta solidified my decision to obtain my Masters in Social Work.

As we picked up the children from each of their homes, I couldn’t help but to glance at the mountain of empty beer cans piled in the front yard; broken glass with the home falling in around them. I was shocked by the level of poverty and living conditions—I would expect these conditions in a newly developing country, but not in the United States. I patiently waited as the children put on their shoes, if their parents were able to afford adequate shoes. I greeted them with a smile and a good morning as we made our way back to the center for the Summer Feeding Program.

My time in Arkansas working at the domestic violence shelter and facilitating the Summer Feeding Program opened my eyes to the possibility of having lifelong impacts by being a Social Worker. I can even remember the exact moment I felt compelled to apply for my Masters of Social Work. I heard someone come into the lobby, a woman crying. I was told by my supervisor to do the intake interview. Before clients could move into the domestic violence shelter and receive services, they had to undergo an intake interview so that we could know more about the individual and his or her situation. I was greeted by a woman with a polite smile, but desperate despair in her eyes. I led her to the office and sat her down to chat. I heard this woman’s story: her ongoing abuse, her escape, her fear, and her dreams. As she spilled out atrocities that another human being had done to her, my heart ached. One of the greatest achievements of that summer was to look this woman in the eye, after knowing all of her story, and being able to say: “It will be alright now,” and truly meaning it.

As I drove home that afternoon, the sun was setting over the hot Arkansas Delta, fishermen were starting to head inside for dinner, and the cornfields were tended to for the day; I struggled with understanding the human capability for evil. Yet, I realized that I could do something more for many people, I could be a Social Worker. This experience prepared me to work with socially and economically disadvantaged populations. This experience along with my undergraduate studies at Lynchburg College helped prepare me for my current endeavor of studying at Virginia Commonwealth University. My experience in AmeriCorps and various Lynchburg non-profits helped mold me into who I am today. I became very involved in poverty studies and advocacy that I even interned at Miriam’s House, a transitional shelter for homeless women and children. The information I received in the classroom regarding poverty studies and theory directly correlated to my work in the field and I am very grateful for these experiences.

My participation and involvement in the Shepherd Consortium on Poverty gave me first-hand experience of what it means to live off of only fourteen dollars a day. I am now in my first year of my Masters of Social Work program at Virginia Commonwealth University. I am confident that my participation in the Shepherd Consortium on Poverty has enabled me to reach the point of working towards my Masters degree.


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