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Not Just My Neighbor: A Friendship from Poverty

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I carry in several bags of groceries; Mary has half a bag. I carry in a bag with brightly colored shirts for my son for school from a retail chain clothing store; Mary carries in a clear plastic bag that a friend had dropped off for her of faded and somewhat seemingly stained old clothes that the friend no longer needed. These are just some of the differences that I have noticed between us since I have moved in next door. I and my family could who could be just steps away from being "in the Welfare system" and my neighbor who is drowning in the Welfare system, what separates us?

I’m not the nosy neighbor type, but it’s become a general rule of thumb that when Mary is not cleaning or preparing the scarcely delivered food, she will entertain herself by sitting outside in our shared back yard and turn on the paint splattered radio that sits ruggedly on a bucket in the garage.

Mary always asks if I would like to join her. The radio, which sits there with a metal hanger protruding to the sky acting as an antenna, only gets one station, and gratefully for Mary, it’s the classic rock music that she has grown up on. Today was an extraordinarily nice day with the sun’s rays gleaming upon us with a cool breeze that ever so gently rustled her long dirty blonde hair, “I would love to join you.”

We had spoken before and enjoyed an occasional cookout on the weekend, but today I wanted to find out more about Mary. In the past she had asked me assist her in filing some paperwork using my computer, because she has never owned one or attempted to use one, in order to see if she was eligible for financial aid to return to school. My first impression was that she should get her G.E.D., but I didn’t share my thought. Her past work experience was minimal at most with a few cashier’s positions at local convenience stores, one at which she had injured herself while stocking the backroom. Unfortunately this accident has ultimately put her into the situation that she is in now. “After I hurt my back at work, my boss decided that he needed to cut back on his staff and even though I had been there the longest, he fired me” Mary explains to me while I am typing her information into the computer. Mary tried to do it herself but if I continued to let her, it would have taken us into the early morning.

As we sit in our sun bleached lawn chairs in the overgrown back yard I ask her, “Why are you trying to go back to school after all these years?” She was silent for a minute as she finished rolling her cigarette on a rusted old Coka Cola tray, because store bought cigarettes are now a luxury, “I have to. My unemployment has run out and I can’t seem to get any cooperation with social security.” I had heard her through our thin walls on several occasions speaking loudly to someone who I now find to be a person on the telephone. “I have been jumping through hoops between social security and my doctors to get my paperwork in order.”

“Does this have anything to do with your accident at your last employers?” I questioned. Now I was intrigued, and I sat up straight in my chair. It was! I gave her my counsel on what she should have done: file a workman’s comp report with the company, sue the company for unlawful termination, the list went on and on. The only thing Mary could speak was, “I couldn’t afford it”, and she took a drag off of what was left of her cigarette. It then hit me: at the time, she was unaware of her options and now it was too late. If I had only known her then.

Mary was now in the welfare system and dependent on what little assistance she receives. Now her only hope is that somehow she can pick herself up and get her head above water. Not only does she have her medical issues that keep her from being able to accept most job opportunities, but like Maslow's theory, the basic needs have to be made before thinking any further. I have agreed to assist Mary in getting her prepared for her placement testing to complete her enrollment process for college. But I can’t help but be concerned how she will fare going back to school after so many years, having to sit in a classroom with students who are much younger and familiar with their subjects and the ways of the college atmosphere. Is she setting herself up for yet another fall?

My shiny, newly washed and oil changed vehicle sits in the driveway. Mary’s rust spotted truck sits idly by in the same spot it has been in over the past three years waiting for repairs. My children walk up the driveway from school with smiling faces waiting for their carefully prepared after school snack and to do their homework. Mary lingers in her home alone and stands in front of her counter lined with prescription medication bottles. She is preparing to make another disappointing phone call to Social Security. These are the differences I see between us. The one difference that has changed…..I’m here to help her and to make a difference.

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