On more than one occasion I have been told that if you really want to witness generosity, you only have to observe the poor. Conveyed to me by those who live and work among the poor, I have always accepted this idea at face value and as a lesson in humility. Then I started to think about all the incredibly generous people I know and all the beautiful acts of kindness I have witnessed in my own middle class life.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A young, twenty-something office worker with a prep school background and a college degree – who got her job through a friend of her father’s – went home crying to her mother after her boss gave her a bad review. His criticisms? The young woman was always late for work, didn’t get her assignments done on time, and generally had a lousy attitude. The mother called the boss to complain, explaining that he wasn’t being fair, underestimated her daughter, and could hurt her budding career with his bad review. This, of course, is wrong on so many levels as to be laughable. What’s even more horrifying is…it’s a true story.
29-year-old Shawntae is unassuming. She sits off to the side in the crowded Caroline Center classroom. Quietly. By herself. The rest of the women are chatty and jokey, a thinly veiled attempt to hide their nervous excitement and hopeful expectation. Today is the day they find out if they passed the Pharmacy Technician final exam. Passing will mean the difference between continuing on to a working internship at a local pharmacy before graduation or flunking out of the program. So yes, most of them are slightly nervous. Except for Shawntae who sits there quietly. By herself...
Most of the women who pass through Caroline Center share commonalities of experience: a legacy of poverty, indifferent or absent parents, stolen childhoods, teen pregnancy, single motherhood, paltry or aborted educations, limited options. This pile up of delinquencies litters their personal landscape, all but obliterating their view of a bright and promising future. It’s out there, just over the horizon, but to reach it, they first have to navigate a rocky and rutty road, pockmarked by unforeseen consequences and foregone conclusions. Bystanders (like you and me) look at the road ahead of these women and grow weary at the very thought.
Many of the women who enroll at Caroline Center come from similar backgrounds. Often, they are the product of either absent and indifferent parents or absent yet caring parents. The problem is absence of any kind, negligent or unavoidable, has its consequences. 23-year-old Caroline Center graduate, Tanora, is a product of the latter. The oldest of 4, Tanora was born to a single mother with limited education. This in turn limited her mother’s employment opportunities. In an effort to make ends meet, Tanora’s mother worked 2 full time jobs, leaving Tanora the adult task of raising her younger brothers and sisters and robbing her of her own childhood. In many ways, her path was set. It began with trouble at school. Middle school.
“Give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for a lifetime.” Ancient Chinese proverb
“Teach a woman to fish…she’ll feed the whole village.” Appended by Hillary Rodham Clinton
Over the years I have visited many Baltimore inner city homes to interview the residents about their life and work, their hopes and dreams. They are members of the urban poor: the un- and underemployed, as well as those who – despite the fact that they work full time and then some – do not make a living wage and struggle to make ends meet. It doesn’t matter what time of the month or year I visit, whether it’s the East side or West side, public or private housing, upon entering each residence, I am always greeted by the same persistent sound: the plaintive chirp of a smoke detector whose batteries need replacing.
In some ways, Wendi’s story is a familiar one. Like many of her Caroline Center colleagues, she had adult responsibility thrust upon her while still a child. Her father left home when Wendi was just 14 years old, leaving Wendi and her mother to fend for themselves. To help out, Wendi went to work at a McDonald’s. She was good at it and after a while became a manager. She stayed there for 4 years before taking a job as an assistant manager at a Target. By age 19 she was living on her own. She is not afraid of work; she has already worked more than half her life.