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March 04, 2014 | 03:51 PM
As a board member of Community Action Inc. of Rock and Walworth Counties in southeastern Wisconsin, I take pride in the dozens of programs we run which are aimed at creating pathways out of poverty.

The “hand-up” versus “handout” approach is always something that has attracted me to volunteer with various organizations, including Community Action. Whether it’s transitional housing, job training or other programs, the staff works to illuminate options for individuals in various situations of need.

With beautiful resorts, vibrant communities, diverse businesses, dairy and crop farms in Walworth County, as well as a state university, many would view the area as a snapshot of middle class Americana.

Rock County differs somewhat with two smaller urban centers in Janesville and Beloit, but also enjoys diverse employers, ample farming operations and unique higher education opportunities with Beloit and Blackhawk Technical colleges. Elkhorn in Walworth County also boasts a popular and growing, Gateway Technical College.

Both counties have vibrant arts communities, small family businesses, medium and large employers and public school districts striving to provide quality education as well as numerous private schools. Recreational opportunities abound.

The lake communities in Walworth County bring tourists and visitors who infuse hundreds of millions of dollars into local economies and the Rock River, dissecting its namesake county, is a destination for those seeking fun on the water or shoreline.

With all these assets and advantages, sometimes what most of us likely don’t see is what may need the most attention. By comparison, our residents have lower than average incomes and there is more poverty than the typical Wisconsin county. Food pantries are active and social services administered by the counties are busier than most would agree they should be. Yet, that is where we live.

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We live in a place with more people in poverty than most of us likely realize. While I have many years of service as a Community Action board member, that truth was underscored for me personally during a recent experience. The church my family attends holds an annual gingerbread house event where families enjoy a chili and hot dog dinner and build a gingerbread house with supplies provided by the church.

While sitting in an early December Sunday service and hearing the pastor promote the event, it occurred to me that Twin Oaks Homeless Shelter, a Community Action facility on the Rock and Walworth county line, would likely have some families with young children.

My epiphany was to make it possible for those families to attend the event, adding some normalcy to what otherwise is a less than ideal holiday season when one finds themselves and their children homeless. It is unlikely if not unimaginable that anyone plans to be homeless or looks forward to applying for shelter housing.

Fast forward to the evening of gingerbread house building when I signed-out a church van to pick up three families from the shelter to attend the event. Parents and children climbed into the van, buckled up and we departed. The van was filled with excited chatter from the kids about where we were going and what it would be like. Among all the shrieks of excitement, questions and observations during the drive, one short string of statements is forever engraved on my memory.

Less than a mile from the shelter, one of the youngest children repeatedly said what a “great” car this was and what a “nice” car this was. Keep in mind — we’re talking about a plain, white church van with vinyl bench seats. Then, the child said, “Mom, can we live in this car?” While everyone continued their conversations anticipating the evening’s activities, the voice of that young child, plaintively asking if she and her family could live in the van, were the most shattering words I’ve ever heard.

Where we live is among many who we probably think are mostly like us, some who are more fortunate and some who are less fortunate. What we may not know is where or how they live and what can make a difference in their lives, especially those experiencing extremely difficult times.

That evening of warmth, smiles, laughter and fellowship are forever captured in my heart and mind. A young child’s plea to “live” in the “nice car” is unforgettable. Where we live, how we live and how we see and help those around us is what can matter more than I ever realized before this experience.

Community Action is a 100 percent local, not-for-profit organization, operating a broad spectrum of community programs aimed at preventing and reducing local poverty in Rock and Walworth counties. It operates the Fresh Start program, offers child care, at-risk youth programming, teen parent support, women’s health care, senior benefits counseling, homeownership programs, affordable housing units, home weatherization and rehab, assistance in dealing with a housing crisis, food for area pantries and shelter for the homeless.

DeBow is board president of Community Action Inc. of Rock and Walworth Counties

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