My parents filed bankruptcy when I was in the fifth grade. My father filed a second time with his second wife years later.
My childhood included growing up in a trailer park outside of Meridian and later living in a single-parent home, attending public school in the Mississippi Delta, one of the most poverty stricken areas in North America.
An early childhood memory, I can still hear the sound of my father slamming the front door of our mobile home and seconds later hear my mom's scream. I jumped out of my small single bed, ran out of my bedroom and saw my dad's hands around my mom's neck, choking her.
I didn't know it at the time, but I grew up in poverty. As I've grown older, I see that I wasn't alone. However, But more than money or other material things I wanted, the resources my family lacked the most were love and spiritual well being. Even worse than living in poverty, feelings of isolation while steeped in poverty make life even more unbearable.
As statistics show on an annual basis, Mississippi routinely ranks last in the nation in key areas related to poverty, including physical and mental health, education, income and quality of life. As an adult, I know people growing up in poverty live in a silent epidemic not monitored by the national Centers for Disease Control. But they still seem ignored.
A year or so ago, I traveled to an Episcopal church in Tupelo to hear a friend give a sermon that changed my life. I sat in the pew next to her husband and heard her talk about poverty. But she didn't just talk about it during this church service. She took action.
Here in Starkville, financial adviser Lynn Phillips Gaines organized a workshop for middle-class people to see what life is like for people in poverty. She helped about two hundred of us see life without middle class filters. I feel so thankful Lynn allowed me to help facilitate the first class in Starkville related to this, called Getting Ahead in a Just Getting By World.
Through this class, I've had the privilege of partnering with about a dozen women who want to make better lives for their children and themselves. They know that to improve their station in life, they can't wait for someone else to do things for them. They want to change and have what it takes inside of them to do it.
As I've gotten to know them, I see my life in their struggles. Many of these women don't have husbands. Many of them struggle to make ends meet. Life's struggles make them feel depressed and sometimes makes them question why they should keep trying.
But they keep going.
As we approach Thanksgiving in the United States, it's a time for us to appreciate what we have in our lives. Many people continue to struggle with employment, finances, relationships, and other areas of life. However, in our poverty, we always have hope as long as we know we can change and make a difference in others' lives and our own. As long as we live in communities where neighbors haven't given up on each other, we'll have hope and opportunity.
Looking back to that six-year-old version of me running into the living room and seeing my mother choked by my father, I think of my life now and those beautiful women I've come to know through this remarkable class.
As scary as it makes us feel, to save our country and ourselves, we must attack poverty and pry its grip from those we love. As someone who believes in redemption, I know it's never too late to help those we love escape poverty. As a 33-year-old marathon runner with a graduate degree, I still struggle to escape the lingering poverty mindset resulting from childhood scars.
Only my closest friends know about many of my experiences growing up, the stories of my dad's emotional manipulation, infidelity and behaviors that have left deep scars on my two sisters and me. Few people know that I spent Father's Day in 2006 at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. On a day when children gathered with their father to show gratitude for nurturing and love, I spent the day acknowledging the severed relationship. I choose to spend time with drunks like my dad, trying to understand how a man could do such awful things to people he "loved."
About a year ago, my father's older brother told me a story from their childhood that I'll never forget. Their mother--my grandmother--sat in the pickup truck at the stoplight with her husband. Feeling panicked and alone, she saw this as her moment for escape, jumping out of the truck and running into the nearby sheriff's department. "He's killing me," she yelled to the deputies.
During that time, the good old boy system thrived in Mississippi even more than now. Those awful men drove my grandmother home, only telling their buddy, "Ed, you've got to do better." In tears, my nearly 70-year-old uncle told me about the Christmas morning his father beat his mother, threatening worse if she told anyone who visited during the day.
Years after I left the financial struggles of child in a single-parent household, I've fought emotional and spiritual poverty. Few people have known why the concept of redemption resonated with me enough to create a festival based on it. More than anything in this life, I believe in redemption, especially our own.
After many years of self-exploration through writing, therapy and the help of many good friends, I keep trying to escape the mental poverty from my childhood. I know a better life exists and try to find it each morning I wake up. While I may not have a functional, biological family, many of my friends have become my family, even if they don't know it.
These days, I live one of the most colorful, interesting worlds that I could ever imagine. I love my life story and look forward to each day, experiencing it unfold with unknown opportunities.
Without experiencing poverty, I wouldn't appreciate everything in my world that makes me feel so thankful. Through memories of little boy I see in photographs, I feel even more thankful for the man reflecting back in the mirror and all of the people who made it possible.