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20 March 2012 – Saint George Day 2: On Medicaid and Zion National Park

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17 March 2012 – HALO Departs for Spring Break 2012!


Why East St. Louis Matters

Posted By Ariel, Mar 29, 2009

Similar to Fatima’s point about the significance of us traveling so far to see poverty not unlike what we could encounter closer to home, I too found myself searching for an explanation for why specifically traveling to East St. Louis was so important. Even on the airplane flight over, however, I started to realize why it mattered. It mattered to the woman who sat next to me from St. Louis, returning from a visit with in-laws in Arizona, who marveled at how far we were traveling to go to a place even she acknowledged needed help but admittedly did not visit. And it mattered for all the others who were shocked to hear how far we’d come, leaving warm soon-to-be summer weather for the Midwest in March, umbrellas and raincoats an imperative on our packing lists. Coming all the way from California was important, I think, to reinforce the point that even though E. St. Louis may be viewed as that place across the bridge to avoid by some of its closest neighbors, there are others who are aware that it deserves attention and aid, that its plight does not go entirely unnoticed. Maybe some of the people shocked at how far a group of law students came to volunteer will reevaluate their relationship with the town across the Mississippi, languishing in the shadow of the glistening and iconic Arch.

E. St. Louis is unique, in the short history of HALO, for being a “disaster zone” devastated not by any specific natural event like the hurricanes, but rather a sad social effect. Many of us struggled over the course of the trip with pinpointing exactly what led to the downturn clearly apparent in E. St. Louis, and to come up with a solution for this different type of devastation that seemed much harder to envision any sort of “quick fix” for—how to even figure out the root problem, or the one of the many that seemed even remotely manageable to remedy?

Especially poignant for me was some of my visits to schools and afterschool programs with the education advocates at Land of Lincoln. The traumatic and telling experiences children as young as five years old had been exposed to, and which already were affecting their behavior and outlook on the world, really made me wonder how, while education is one of the few ways to allow people to “get ahead” in the world, these children would really have the opportunity to escape the cruel cycle of poverty and violence that they were growing up in. A little girl in kindergarten blurted out in the midst of my helping her with her math problems that she was sad about something, and after I asked her a little more she revealed to me that she was troubled by having witnessed an elder woman she knew being killed. I didn’t even know what to say to her, or how I could possibly comfort her. Here she was, a little child supposed to be dutifully working on her addition and subtraction, and yet she could not focus because she was haunted by seeing things I cannot even imagine.

At this same homework-help session I was helping an eight-year-old boy with his grammar assignment—they were supposed to write metaphors and similes following an example sentence. For one of the sample sentences “The truck is loud like a grunting hog” he wrote “The truck is loud like people shooting guns.” This exercise was supposed to be a creative opportunity for children to compare common things with other accessible descriptors, and I found it shocking that this type of violence must be so commonplace and familiar that he would draw from it, in his realm of reality, as as natural a comparison as something more banal and innocuous as “the water is smooth as glass.” Other times, his playful and intelligent comparisons were striking—he compared the moon to a roller coaster, and when I expressed some doubt at the accuracy of such a descriptive comparison, he jumped into a detailed explanation of the orbit of various planets, to explain why he envisioned the moon that way (whereas I had suggested the much less imaginative comparison of “the moon is like swiss cheese”). It was both startling and heartbreaking to me to think that the same boy who had visions of dancing planets in his head also had the sound of guns ringing in his ears. No kid should be so familiar with that sound that it would be the first thing to come to mind when he’s trying to compare/clarify/communicate something.

During my week helping out at Land of Lincoln, I had the opportunity to drive around with one of the education advocates as she visited different schools and checked up on kids enrolled in special education and who had IEPs (individualized education plans, mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act [IDEA]) entitling them to special services. Of course, she told me that it is sometimes hard to tell when a child shows up to kindergarten not even knowing how to hold a pencil or how to spell their name, whether or not they just haven’t had the attention in their home and are just behind, or are actually in need of special education because their mother may have been on drugs when she was pregnant and they are now severely effected. She told me other stories about how difficult it was to just go to school in E. St. Louis, to hopefully get a good education and get out. She told me of a boy who, though lucky enough to be able to go to a private school in St. Louis, was struggling there and having difficulty adjusting. While his peers were able to go home to do their homework in the evening, he and his family would often huddle on the floor in the center of the house while gunfire was going on outside. His mother told the school psychologist that this was an almost daily occurrence in the summer; and occurred 4-5 times a week during the rest of the year. Also, the Land of Lincoln advocate told me that the elementary and middle schools get out earlier, at 2:45, explicitly so that the little kids can get home before the high school kids get out, with their gangs and their guns.

These images of young children growing up in such a difficult environment, although probably no different from what children face in many other troubled inner-city neighborhoods across the U.S., profoundly affected me. Even as education is supposed to be able to allow children to escape unfavorable circumstances, these children certainly face especially challenging obstacles towards taking advantage of that great equalizer.