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Westside Baby’s 16th Annual CommuniTea fun(draiser) Features Spotlight Speaker, Jessica Bartholow

Babies and children are at the heart of everything WestSide Baby does – but more so than ever, during its 16th annual CommuniTea fun(draiser) Sunday afternoon in SeaTac.

Spotlight speaker Jessica Bartholow from the Western Center on Law and Poverty, who has for decades advocated professionally and personally (spoke) “about what it means for a child to grow up in poverty.”

Bartholow began by saying it’s important to change the ways in which “our country is leaving children behind” and told her personal story of poverty starting at age 8.

She spoke of “the first time she really felt the weight” of poverty in her life. Her father was a Vietnam Veteran with untreated PTSD; there was violence in her household, “frequent disruption of our housing status” – moving and changing schools every year – and “we became poor like many people do in America … when something happens.” Her sister was hurt, “several times,” falling and breaking bones. The second time it happened, her family had just bought a house, and her mother had opened her own bookkeeping business, which she lost because her daughter had to spend a month in the hospital. They lost the house, and went into debt, and moved into an apartment. A debt collector showed up one day and told Jessica to call her mom “and tell her I’m here.”

Being poor was dangerous, she said. Her family moved far from the Sacramento area, where they had been before that, to Lake Tahoe, where it snowed, and they couldn’t afford boots, or weather-appropriate clothes. “And one day, my dad was working far away, laying pipe … my mother worked at a casino … and one day my mother didn’t come home.” The family had been living off whatever they could make of Bisquick mix for two weeks at that point. “My sister and I stayed up, waited for her to come, there wasn’t food… one day she came back, about 1 o’clock in the morning. We were confused. Where had she been? She walked in the door with two heaping bags of French fries from McDonald’s. … The night remained a mystery to me for many years.” She never asked, but by the time she felt ready to ask, “my mom was gone … I realized later what had happened … she didn’t come home because it was expensive to drive a car … too costly to come get us and wait outside McDonald’s for when they threw out the leftover French fries.”

She also talked of an act of kindness during a family party thrown by the casino that employed her mom, a man who worked for the casino noticing that Jessica was on the sidelines, alone, crying, and offering to partner with her for the games during the event – which they improbably, in her view, won. She said that she tells that story because many people don’t understand what it’s like to be poor – “fist fights over food, in your house,” among other things. 16 percent of the U.S. population knows this all too well, she said. But – “even when things are bad, even when the help you’re given looks like it’s not going to work, things can come together.”

She told the group that their help with diapers and items is “the kind of community you’re building,” to help people like the impoverished child she was, and so many more. She is on the Diaper Bank’s national board with Woodland, and reminded attendees that while babies don’t realize they are poor, their bodies know the “toxic stress of unmet needs,” hungry, homeless, diaperless – that stress does affect their brains, and their “ability to cope.”

Bartholow suggested that what’s needed to climb out of poverty –

“nobody gets lifted out of poverty, they climb and kick and scratch their way out”

– is to be sure those basic needs are met in the very earliest years, to avoid “toxic stress.” And – she challenged everyone in the room – ask why so many children are in deep poverty? What can we do about that? Also: “Keep our babies healthy … if they have an injury, we need to have health care to take care of that.” Bartholow said her sister did not get out of poverty, due mostly to untreated medical conditions; including the broken arm, which, Bartholow said, had two surgeries, but “needed three” and became “useless. … She has lived her adult life in pain.”

And, she declared, “We need to give ourselves as Americans the hope, the goal, of ending childhood poverty and deep poverty.” 5,400 children live in deep poverty – at or below half the level considered poverty – in King County, she said in closing: “Make King County the first to end childhood deep poverty.”

Read more here