Written by: Eugenie Schieve, Research Intern, Texas Hunger Initaitive
Early Monday morning, June 6, several staff members of the Texas Hunger Initiative and I set out for the three hour drive to Nacogdoches, a mid-sized city in East Texas. It was only my second day on the job, and I was extremely anxious to discover what we might encounter on this site visit. The goal of the Nacogdoches trip was to connect with the community through a listening session with community members.
Founded almost eight years ago, THI set out to end hunger across the state of Texas. As primary component of poverty, addressing hunger seemed like an obvious issue that could and should be solved. However, conquering hunger across a large state is still a complex problem. The struggles of food insecurity differ immensely across age groups and regions. In order for THI to better approach the issue of hunger, it is necessary to maintain a connection within communities, which is exactly what we set out to do. And, as a research intern, I was tasked with observing the conversations and taking extensive notes.
We arrived at our first stop, Davis Memorial Church, late in the morning, ready to attend a Summer Meals Kickoff event. A petting zoo with horses and other animals was already set up outside in addition to a few bouncy houses and a face-painting tent. At first glance, the kickoff simply resembled a celebration. But when I took a closer look, it became clear that the purpose was to strategically connect low-income families with as many useful resources as possible. As the time neared for the ribbon cutting ceremony, THI staff members met with a number of people, such as Pastor Al Shaw and his wife, Sandy, who were hosting the event, Bill Ludwig from the USDA, Nacogdoches Mayor Roger Van Horn, County Judge Mike Perry and Congressman Louie Gohmert. I was in awe of the number of people who came out to support the event ranging from the community, to the local government, to state government, all the way up to the federal government. It seems so rare that these voices are able to come together to tackle such a pressing issue.
As the day progressed, we moved from the Kickoff event and met with caseworkers and parents at Head Start, a federally funded educational program for at-risk families, the executive director and a volunteer/beneficiary of HOPE (Helping Other People Eat), a local food pantry, and finished by sharing dinner with Pastor Shaw, Mrs. Shaw, and two single mothers who have benefitted from the community, state and federal programs. I was overwhelmed with gratitude that all of these people were so willing to open up and share their experiences with us—difficult subjects that most people shy away from.
I realize how frequently our misperceptions influence our response toward hunger and low-income families. Each and every one was striving toward self-sufficiency, combatting the hopelessness of generational poverty, and giving what they could back to their communities.
No one understands poverty and hunger better than those who have experienced it first hand. THI seeks to coordinate across all levels of government and communities in order to develop meaningful changes. Oftentimes there is a disconnect between the boots on the ground and those who possess the ability to affect change. THI serves as the listening ear in communities. The Shaws exuded a sense of empowerment; they knew that their never-ending endeavors to support and improve the community were being recognized and supported.
I want to thank all of the kind people of Nacogdoches who opened up their hearts and homes to THI. When we first set out, I was anxious—afraid that the realities would be too harsh to face, but my experience was just the opposite. As Jean Vanier, a Canadian Catholic philosopher, theologian and humanitarian, appropriately describes it, “Community is a sign that love is possible in a materialistic world where people so often either ignore or fight each other. It is a sign that we don’t need a lot of money to be happy—in fact, the opposite.” I’m grateful to have seen a side of a community that wasn’t filled with sadness and hopelessness, but rather a community filled with love and support.
Photos by: Madyson Russell, No Kid Hungry Youth Ambassador, Texas Hunger Initiative