Poverty strikes close to home for kids, families

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By Arin McKenna

Fourth of a series

Jim Little, who, with his wife Gail, started a free lunch program called Aaron’s Kids through the First United Methodist Church-Los Alamos, summed up the problem succinctly.
“It breaks my heart. Here we are, the most affluent community in the country, and we’ve got hungry kids. How can this be?” Little said.
According to Ellen Ben-Naim, a coordinator for the Juvenile Justice Advisory Board (JJAB), hunger is only one of the issues that youth from low-income families must deal with.
Stress in the home may impact success at school. The family may not be able to purchase clothing or school supplies. Parents’ work schedules may pose barriers to getting kids to school. With older youth, truancy or substance abuse issues may go unobserved because parents are working long hours to make ends meet.
“And I think there’s more stigma here attached to it than there is in other communities, because it’s such a hidden problem. And so families are reluctant to reach out for help, and kids will have issues of self esteem and embarrassment,” Ben-Naim said.
JJAB is making efforts to address the needs of these families. Youth Resource Advocate Troy Palmer was hired a year and a half ago to support middle and high school students.
“He ended up picking up elementary school families, fourth, fifth, sixth graders, and his caseload quickly ballooned out,” Ben-Naim said. Approximately 50 percent of those families are on Medicaid, an indicator of financial need.
“That doesn’t mean that there aren’ t also other families that are also experiencing financial stress, but we know that’s a marker. Families are experiencing difficulties around basic needs,” Ben-Naim said.
JJAB requested funding from Los Alamos County to expand the program, which they leveraged with state funding to hire one full time and one part time family resource advocate to work with elementary school children. That program — offered free of charge — launched at full capacity July 1.
“As far as JJAB in general goes, we are very aware of the financial strains that a number of families experience, and most of our programs and services are free. And if there is a charge, it’s nominal, and always with the caveat that costs will be covered for families in need.”
Being an affluent community makes addressing poverty more difficult.
“There are federal programs to provide breakfast and lunch for low income families, but we don’t have a high enough percentage of low-income families in the county to qualify for that,” Ben-Naim said. “So they (the schools) are just finding other funding to provide that.”
Los Alamos Public Schools has implemented a free and reduced lunch program in the elementary schools, but such programs are still lacking for middle and high school students. Aaron’s Kids is attempting to fill that gap.
A volunteer at the high school contacted Jim Little nearly three years ago, saying, “We’ve got kids over here who are hungry. What can the Methodist church do to help us?”
“So that triggered it, and we started the Aaron’s Kids program,” Little said.
Little named the program for Aaron Goldman, longtime volunteer at LA Cares and founder of the Los Alamos CROP Hunger Walk. First United Methodist’s outreach group promised to pay startup costs and back the program when it needed additional funds.
Jim and Gail worked out a menu and headed to Sam’s Club, spending hours reading labels to find nutritional lunch items that could be packed as individual lunches and delivered to the high school.
The Littles soon realized that middle school children also needed help, as did the teen center and the youth activity center. Aaron’s Kids now provides more than 100 lunches daily to those venues.
Little tries to insure that those receiving the free lunches are not stigmatized, hence the plastic shopping bags so they look like any other kid carrying their lunch to school.
“I don’t want to know the kids. Well, I would love to know the kids. But for their anonymity, I don’t want to know,” Little said. “I don’t want to invade their privacy, and I think it’s very important not to invade.”
Volunteers now help pick up food in Santa Fe and pack lunches.
“So whenever we’ve expanded, it’s been because somebody recognized that they could help,” Little said. “It’s been really satisfying to my soul to see that I’m not on the page alone.”
The program has received grants from the Methodist church district office in Albuquerque, the Kiwanis Club and Home Instead. Individual donors include several church members who have contributed $500 each. The Unitarian Church has partnered to sponsor the middle school lunches.
Aaron’s Kids has also become a member agency of The Food Depot, giving the program greater access to perishable food items.
“It still leaves a major hole for the siblings of the kids that we’re helping. Because those siblings that are not in school, but they’re still hungry too,” Little said.
“So I stress with the people who distribute it, if a kid comes in and says, ‘my little sister’s hungry,' for heaven’s sake, send home food with them.”
Little shares some of the pantry’s contributions with Aaron’s Closet, another program sponsored by First United Methodist Church that launched this spring. Michelle Aslin is the motivating force behind that program.
Aslin realized the need when she saw that a girl she had driven to school had only a long sleeved shirt for her “winter” coat.
“So of course, I immediately got online and went to Old Navy and bought a jacket and a scarf,” Aslin said. “So it kind of solidified that there is a need in this community for this type of thing.
“In my household, unfortunately, we have a lot of waste. We buy kids stuff, and all of a sudden it’s not in style anymore, or it doesn’t fit anymore. So you’ve got all this excess clothing, and what do you do with it? You either have a garage sale or you take it to a thrift store.
“I just started thinking that instead of taking them to a thrift store for them to turn around and sell it, that maybe we could just open up a store-type environment and let people come in and take what they want. They don’t have to buy anything. They don’t have to give anything. They just need to come in and take what they want.”
Aaron’s Closet has clothing, backpacks and lunchboxes for ages K-12.
“The goal is to reach kids that are in need of gently used clothing and shoes,” Aslin said. “And people also donate toys, so we always have a toy table, and the kids love that, because they get a little toy, too.”
The only limit volunteers set is making sure someone does not try to load up with items to sell at a rummage sale. “It happens, unfortunately,” Aslin said.
Aaron’s closet is open the second and fourth Saturdays of the month from 9-11 a.m., in the Fellowship Hall at the First United Methodist Church. Check to confirm times.
To donate, call 662-6277 or 660-0340. Items may also be dropped off at the church, 715 Diamond Drive.
Monetary donations for the purchase of undergarments are also appreciated.
Monetary donations to Aaron’s Kids can be made through the First United Methodist Church (662-6277). Write “Aaron’s Kids” in the memo line.
Those wishing to contribute to JJAB can find a link on their website (losalamosjjab.com).