Overcoming the Barriers of Poverty

By Whitney Hacker

Ms. Hacker currently lives in the Greater Cincinnati region and works for DAV (Disabled American Veterans) at its National Headquarters in Cold Spring, Kentucky. She graduated from Berea College in 2011 with a Bachelor of Arts in Child and Family Studies and a minor in German. She completed her Masters in Public Administration at Northern Kentucky University in 2014. Whitney hopes to continue education within the areas of nonprofit management and public policy in the future.

"I quickly understood that these people needed much more than a stable job," writes Hacker (Berea 2011), who interned at Commonwealth Catholic Charities, in Richmond, VA.

“I quickly understood that these people needed much more than a stable job,” writes Hacker (Berea 2011), who interned at Commonwealth Catholic Charities, in Richmond, VA.


As an emerging young adult, I undoubtedly faced the traditional barriers of living in rural Jackson County, Kentucky. I attended a small, impoverished high school with few opportunities for personal growth and even fewer connections to employment in the area. At home, I was stifled by issues surrounding overworked, undercompensated parents, and the inaccessibility to resources for quality food, healthcare, education, and more. While I may not have known all of the ways I was limited, I would later discover the true potential for these resources to shape my development as a student, employee, and person.

Throughout my high school career, I worked diligently to overcome these obstacles and reach the institution that I had dreamed of attending for most of my life: Berea College. I was accepted into Berea as an individual that was quite sheltered and above all, lacking the support that I so desperately needed. As an institution grounded in the power of love over hate; human dignity and equality; and peace with justice, the Berea undoubtedly illustrates the significant of service across every program and academic discipline.

In doing so, Berea has taken great strides to encourage students to partake in opportunities to benefit other individuals in the same way that Berea has benefitted them. As a member of the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty (SHECP), Berea has many staff and faculty that support students in participating in a Shepherd Alliance Summer Internship (Internship). In addition to extending service-learning beyond the local region, Shepherd allows for Berea students to engage with individuals and families that lack stability as many of their own families may have.

During Summer 2010, I was selected to participate in the internship program to assist in an area that I feel very passionate about: Refugee and Immigration Services. I was placed in Richmond, Virginia where I reported to what is now Commonwealth Catholic Charities (CCC)’s Refugee and Immigration Program. Within this program, I was honored to learn a great deal about the agency’s processes in the primary areas of English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) Education, School Liaison Services, Employment Liaison Services, and Refugee Resettlement. While the employment and school services aimed to further integrate immigrants in the area, the resettlement and ESL programs fulfilled the clients’ most basic, immediate needs.

I was able to learn many of the common struggles of these vulnerable populations both from working with incoming clients and also in collaborating closely with program staff. It was clear that 1) program staff worked countless hours to ensure that clients improved their unfortunate situations as soon as possible; 2) clients – albeit limited in ways to communicate – wholeheartedly appreciated the work of all staff and volunteers associated with the program; and 3) there are far more critical variables than that of material assets. While I already had a gauge of what it meant to live miles, even hours, away from name brand clothing, organic vegetables, and reasonably compensated employers, I had not grasped the level of poverty that one would confront after uprooting from the only home they had ever known in search of safety for their families. These individuals arrived in our facility with only the clothing on their backs and the language of their country. I quickly understood that these people needed much more than a stable job. These individuals were mothers, fathers, and grandparents desperately searching for a safe place to raise their children. Over the course of my internship, I could recognize the imminent fear in each of their eyes as they worked to develop trust in a stranger with whom they could barely communicate. The personal influence of these relationships on my perspective was truly remarkable.

By completion of the internship, I had developed and led the first Annual ESL Summer Program for 150+ refugee & immigrant youth; transformed the acquisition and coordination of household resources for Refugee Home Resettlement; provided instruction for 50+ refugees and immigrants in the School Liaison Summer Youth and English as a Second Language programs; and assessed 5+ refugees in career-readiness and skill level for the Employment Assistance program.

In May 2011, I completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in Child and Family Studies. Since that time, I have increasingly applied the knowledge and skills learned throughout my Internship. Following graduation from Berea, I was selected as an AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteer in Service to America) for the Kentucky Campus Compact. In this position, I filled a role as a Program Coordinator for the Northern Kentucky University (NKU) Office of Community Connections. The Office serves the Greater Cincinnati community through noncredit programs and services and allows for community members of any age or background to access opportunities for noncredit life-skills learning, test preparation, foreign language development, college readiness, career exploration, and more. In this venue, I worked closely with an array of not-for-profit partners while also enriching the lives of individuals and families in the region.

While working on-site at NKU, I completed my Masters of Public Administration with a concentration in Nonprofit Management. I recognized that Berea College, the Shepherd Alliance Internship Program, and AmeriCorps VISTA assignments had a common element: the strategic assessment and application of programs that benefited diverse and often impoverished populations. I highly valued the opportunities that I had to not only provide direct service but to improve those services and maximize the impact on others.

After two full terms as an AmeriCorps participant, I accepted a position as a Grant Evaluator for the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) National Headquarters in Cold Spring, Kentucky. In serving primarily for the DAV-affiliated grant-making organizations (DAV Charitable Service Trust, DAV National Service Foundation), I evaluated hundreds of funding applications each year, with full reports and funding recommendations to the respective entities’ Board of Directors. Recently, I was promoted to the senior role within the Trust & Foundation Administration sector of the DAV HQ. I now collaborate closely with the Administrator of the DAV Charitable Service Trust, DAV National Service Foundation, and Disabled Veterans’ Life Memorial Foundation to oversee evaluation of requests from each grant-making organization. My duties include processes regarding incoming contributions from individuals, corporations, workplace giving campaigns, bequests, and other means of giving.

Indisputably, my roots with both Berea College and the Shepherd program have paved the path for service that has impacted thousands of individuals throughout the country. I am honored to contribute to the well-being of those that have sacrificed so much—individuals that are truly eager to learn, grow, and adapt in their communities. I am continuously grateful for my studies at Berea and the Shepherd Alliance and their potential to promote both short- and long- term service to individuals in need.

#NorthernKentuckyUniversity #AmeriCorpsVISTA #CommonwealthCatholicCharities #RefugeeandImmigrationProgram #CCC #DisabledAmericanVeterans

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