“She looked around the room as if seeing it for the first time. One of the table legs was uneven and had to be propped by a piece of wood so it wouldn’t wiggle. The walls were patched and peeling. The floor was wood plank and splintery and no matter how much she swept, it never looked clean. The dishes were chipped and the blankets frayed and no amount of beating could remove their musty smell. Her other life seemed like a story she had read in a book a long time ago, a fairy tale. She could see the illustration in her mind: the Sierra Madre, El Rancho de las Rosas, and a carefree young girl running through the vineyard. But now, sitting in this cabin, the story seemed as if it were about some other girl, someone Esperanza didn’t know anymore.”

“Esperanza Rising”

Haley closed the cover of the book, her heavy eyelids tugging her towards rest and sweet relief. Sleep meant that for a while—just a little while—she could escape the fears and worry that gnawed relentlessly at the corners of her mind. The darkness comforted her like a blanket as she drifted away into dreams and memories.

It hadn’t always been this way. Things started to change when Mom quit her job to take care of Grandma after the stroke. It was hard to see Grandma go overnight from a strong woman, the owner of her own construction company, to a frail shadow that slowly slipped away. Still, they had Dad’s paycheck to take care of them and Mom was glad for the chance to stay with Grandma. But then Dad came home and told them he’d lost his job. That day everything changed.

Like Esperanza, the heroine of her favorite storybook, Haley could remember what life was like Before. Both Mom and Dad held good-paying jobs and there was always enough money to pay the bills, plus some left over for extras. There were family vacations, fun birthday parties, and trips to get take-out whenever they wanted. Haley knew there were poor people in the world; she’d spent summers on mission trips to Appalachia. She learned to swing a hammer by the age of 10, helping to build homes for people who needed help. She never expected that someday she would be the one that was poor, the one that needed help.

Haley’s stomach rumbled, reminding her that she’d eaten little but Pop-tarts and milk that day. There was still food in the house, thanks to government benefits and the safety net they provided, but Haley knew the less she ate, the easier it would be for her parents. It was better to skip eating than to look at the worry etching itself across Mom and Dad’s faces. She was only 12, but she’d already learned that if she ignored her hunger long enough, her stomach would eventually stop hurting.

*             *             *             *             *             *

Job loss, medical bills, the death of a family member—these can all signal the beginning of a financial catastrophe for families.  It took Haley’s family years of painstaking effort to regain their footing after suffering the devastation of all of these things happening at once. They certainly weren’t unique in their struggles! According to The Disability Survey, April 2012, half of surveyed working Americans said they wouldn’t make it a month after a job loss before financial difficulties set in. With the average length of unemployment hovering around 25 weeks, a family’s financial crisis may be only one pink slip away.

Haley remains grateful for the social safety net that helped her own family through hard times. She credits those difficult years with making her more resourceful and with fueling her determination to help others who are struggling. She says, “I was super malnourished, super underweight. I didn’t enjoy food anymore because of our financial difficulties, and that’s hard when you’re a pre-teen. I developed an eating disorder because I assumed food wasn’t always going to be around, and that if I didn’t eat there was less of a burden on my family. I don’t want to see any other child go through what I did if I can stop it. And that’s the entire reason I’m part of Montana No Kid Hungry.”

No child should be hungry. The trauma of chronic hunger creates more than simple physical harm in children. It surrounds them with an environment of fear and anxiety that can cause lasting mental and emotional damage to their developing brains. Hopefully, you or your child will never have to experience chronic hunger or other traumatic events. If you do, here are some tips from Child Mind Institute on helping your child cope. Check out the link for great advice tailored to each age group!

  • Act calm and help your child feel safe
  • Maintain routines as much as possible
  • Be a good listener and acknowledge what your child is feeling
  • Know when to seek help for yourself or your child
  • Don’t forget to take care of yourself

Of course, the best outcome for children and trauma is to prevent the trauma from happening in the first place. Join the fight against childhood hunger today—you CAN make a difference in a child’s life!

Tina Kahrs
Montana No Kid Hungry-PRC AmeriCorps VISTA
Plentywood, MT