“Shhhhh! Mom’s sleeping again!”

Rachel Byrd’s* body lay in a crumpled heap on one end of the sagging brown couch. Her three children, Ryan, age 7, Emma, age 5, and Parker, age 3, tiptoed past, sock feet scuffing through the recently vacuumed carpet. The coffee table gleamed with fresh polish, and a smell of disinfectant fought the ever-present odor of stale smoke. Filled with a rush of energy, Rachel had spent the night before cleaning everything that could be cleaned, then cleaning it again.

It was morning, but the living room was dark, the only light in the room filtering around the edges of heavy blankets hanging from every window. A yellowed glass pipe lay on the coffee table, the smoke-blackened bulb and nearby lighter tell-tale signs of drug use, but the three children only noticed the gnawing emptiness of their own stomachs.

They were used to these mornings when Mom slept in and they knew the routine. Keep quiet. Stay out of trouble. Whatever you do, DON’T wake Mom up. But they were hungry now, and Mom might not wake up for hours—maybe not until evening. Ryan knew it was up to him to feed his younger brother and sister, just like he’d done so many times before. Usually he could find something easy, like bread or cereal, but today the cupboards were full of things he didn’t know how to cook. He’d gotten in trouble enough times for getting the kitchen dirty when he was trying to fix something for Parker and Emma to eat. He didn’t want to mess up again.

Then he had an idea. He knew he was supposed to stay in the house, but this was an emergency, and maybe Mom wouldn’t mind when she saw that the kitchen was still clean when she woke up. The locked front door was no obstacle for Ryan’s strong, small body—he simply squeezed out the kitchen widow. The trailer court where the family lived was hushed and still, most residents either in bed or already gone to work. Ryan started making the rounds, knocking on doors, asking anyone who answered if they would give him some food to take back to Emma and Parker.

        *             *             *             *             *             *

We’ve all heard the conversation about addiction.  Despite being in a “war on drugs” since 1971, national drug abuse rates have continued to climb, with overdose deaths surpassing car accidents and guns as a cause of death every year since 2008. Montana’s rural landscape has been no protection against the rising tide of substance abuse. Addiction has taken a tremendous toll on individuals—and families—across the state. The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services’ records show that 65% of recent child abuse and neglect cases involved parental drug use.

Ryan’s story is true, a deeply-troubling scenario that is played out in homes across our state and our nation on a daily basis. Parents, even those with the best intentions in the world, are human beings that are sometimes swept up in problems bigger than themselves. Not just addiction—health crises, family trauma, mental illness, and other such overwhelming events can leave a parent without the necessary reserves to meet the most basic needs of their children. 

No one likes to think that hunger might be hiding in their town, on their street, maybe right next door. But it happens, more than we know. The question is, what can we do about it? Supporting Montana No Kid Hungry’s mission to increase access to healthy food through school meals is one way to help. Here are a few other ideas:

  • Organize or join a food drive for the local food bank
  • Learn what anti-hunger programs are available in your community and the ways you can support them
  • Put together a fundraising event to benefit anti-hunger organizations—like No Kid Hungry
  • Invite a neighbor over for a meal
  • Collect spare change in a jar—see how much you can save in a year, then donate it to fight hunger
  • Talk to your city and/or state leaders about the importance of combating childhood hunger

And stop for a moment to notice, to care. Ryan and his siblings got help because a neighbor took the time to get involved. Just one person can make a difference.

*All names have been changed.

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