By Sarah Burns, 2014-2015 Rochester Youth Year Fellow
Everyone recognizes that poverty exists. It is a fact that we live with, discuss, and something that many people ignore or look past in their day to day lives. We debate what the cause of someone’s poverty is, why it isn’t alleviated, and sometimes, what we can do to fix it. That’s normally where the conversation ends. We went to ACT Rochester’s Report Card event earlier this year based on this premise: What is poverty? How can we help? Unlike most discussions, though, it didn’t end there. The speakers clearly stated that simply attending this event would not alleviate poverty, that those going home thinking they did their part had, in fact, not done enough. We were told that we needed to get out into the community and work; we needed to be the change we wanted to see in our community.
We often hear about the poverty that children are facing. Living in the City of Rochester, where more than 50% of children live in poverty, it’s a concern that should be spoken of prominently and fought to address, but I fear that people sometimes forget to include others in their fight. I have the unique and wonderful opportunity to work at Episcopal SeniorLife Communities which, as it sounds, is a senior living organization. There are many things that make ESLC stand out among their fellow organizations. We provide a range of care, from independent living all the way to skilled nursing. We have several communities throughout Monroe County and are always looking to build new relationships with the community. This brings me to what I see as one of the most unique and forward-thinking things we offer at this organization: our Neighborhood Programs. We currently have five different Neighborhood Programs throughout Monroe County which offer health and wellness courses to seniors at our centers, as well as those in the surrounding community. The goal of the program is to keep these seniors living in their place of choice for as long as possible. Our goal is to keep them from needing our services. We often focus on children and how to help them, something that I fully support and plan to make a career out of, but we forget that those children that have grown up and become seniors still need help. I have seen firsthand the poverty of seniors in the Rochester area. Simply by walking across that bridge from our Mount Hope campus in the South Wedge to the Plymouth-Exchange neighborhood, you enter a whole new world. A world where the first thing each neighborhood association meeting does is go over the crimes that have occurred since their last meeting. These, more often than not, include a couple of robberies and several shootings.
As a VISTA, I am trying to better the lives of both seniors and youth in the community. The program I created, GAP (or the Generations Align Project), works to pair seniors and youth in a one-on-one mentoring relationship. The goal of the program is to be mutually beneficial for both parties and to boost their self-esteem. Creating the basis for the program is truly only half the battle. The program would do no good if there were not people to be a part of it. Each person in the program has so much to offer to the other. The youth can teach the seniors or simply give them that relationship that they might not have with their family. The same can be said for the seniors that participate. They can give the youth a relationship they may not have and can open their eyes to things they didn’t even know about. They work together to improve the quality of life for the other.
Recently, I spoke with the principal of School 19, a wonderful woman who inspired me greatly. She knew the name of each student in the hallway (there are over 400 students) and each student that she greeted showed such joy and respect for her. I can only hope that one day I can be half the woman she is. She is a woman who can change poverty and find a solution through community based leadership. She has worked to partner with over 30 community organizations to better her students’ lives. Each one of those organizations works to find a solution to poverty. I think the most important thing to remember is that my program, her programs, each of those community organizations that are working with the students is built upon individual people. Yes they are a group, yes they may be known as a whole, but they would not exist if it were not for the goodness of community members. Community members who decided that they didn’t want to simply attend an event and listen to the problems our community is facing. Community members who decided they wanted to leave that event and take a stand by joining an organization, by joining a program, by starting something on their own. Everything is based off the idea of one or several people. Many think that they alone cannot make a difference, that they alone cannot find a solution to poverty or even partially alleviate it. Those people have to remember that those huge organizations that seem to have the ability to change the world are built on the work of individuals. By taking a stand, by working with a school, by joining GAP, individuals in the community are working toward a solution to poverty.