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“If a free society cannot help the many who are poor,
it cannot save the few who are rich.”
— John F. Kennedy, inaugural address, Jan. 20, 1961
I know what it is like to grow up poor. That is certainly nothing to brag about. My brothers and sisters and I were fortunate that there were others in our community who were willing to help us when we needed it the most. We were not alone in our poverty.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 43.1 million Americans living below the poverty line in 2015. Of those, 14.5 million were children. Many of these families are working poor doing their best but coming up short.
In Worcester, approximately 22 percent of our population lives below the poverty line, according to the 2015 American Community Survey. Statewide, the number is a bit over 11 percent. For most, what they need is not a handout but a hand up.
Casandra, 20, is a young single mother working incredibly hard to provide a better life for herself and her 4-month-old son, Mikey. Casandra grew up in Florida, where her family moved around a great deal. She moved to the Northeast, with her mother and younger sister, after her father’s suicide. The family finally settled near a relative in Spencer.
By the time she arrived in Spencer, Casandra was already in high school. She dropped out because she felt her teachers “gave up” on her. Later, she met a young man who physically abused her. He is now in prison for his abuse. Connected through the YWCA, she turned to the Worcester Community Action Council (WCAC) for help.
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Each day, Casandra boards a bus and travels 40 minutes to get to WCAC’s downtown Worcester offices, where she receives help and support. When I met her, she was studying while keeping an eye on Mikey. This past week, Casandra passed her final general equivalency exam test.
Now that she has her diploma, Casandra wants to enroll in a nursing program. Of WCAC’s staff she says, “They give you confidence … what you need. A lot of days, they were like my second family.”
Founded in 1965 as a part of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, the Worcester Community Action Council is Worcester’s lead antipoverty agency. At that time, former City Manager Francis McGrath, then Catholic Bishop Bernard Flanagan, and select business leaders got together to create an agency that would help those individuals who needed help the most.
Over time, the agency has grown. Today, of the agency’s $21 million budget, about 90 percent comes from the federal government.
WCAC is led by the delightfully upbeat Jill Dagilis. A former assistant to the City Manager for operations, Dagilis took over the agency in 2006. Today, that agency serves 75,000 people living in Worcester and 45 surrounding communities.
Of its various programs, the largest is the fuel assistance program, which serves 16,000 households. More than one-third of those served by this program are seniors, about a quarter of those served are disabled and the rest are basically working poor.
Check out our free-to-read Sun Shine feature on WCAC’s fuel assistance program
On a recent visit to WCAC, I stopped by the fuel assistance program. There was a line of about a dozen people – young, old, white, people of color, just regular people waiting because they were worried that they could not heat their homes this winter.
Not long ago, WCAC received a letter of thanks from a young mother of two boys who was not able to work full time because she could not afford day care. She needed fuel assistance to get by. Today, that mother is employed full time and no longer needs help. She is typical of the hundreds of families that WCAC helps move forward toward self-sufficiency.
“It’s not accurate to say that people come here year after year for a free handout,” says Dagilis. She points out that WCAC provides education programs, and connects clients to job training and a wide range of other programs designed specifically to help get families moving in the right direction.
As Dagilis sees it, the problem is twofold. First, so many of the people that her agency attempts to help come to them with a huge mountain to climb: Some do not speak English; others have an elementary school reading level. Getting them to the point where they can handle a job is difficult. Second, there are not enough entry-level jobs that provide livable wages. So, while many of the people served by WCAC are employed, they still need assistance because their meager wages are insufficient.
But Dagilis is undaunted. She says simply that “it takes time and patience. It takes support.”
Kiyara is a 19-year-old woman who got her very first job through WCAC’s “YouthWorks” program. Each year, as many as 400 young people get summer employment and case management support through YouthWorks that gets them started. There Kiyara received training and regular support. A graduate of North High School, Kiyara could not find a full-time job because she had no work experience. Today, as a result of her work at WCAC, she works full time as a receptionist.
Check out our profile of the YouthWorks program
During the holiday season, as we count our blessings, we often think of those individuals and families who have not been as fortunate. At this time of year, many in our community donate to food pantries and religious and neighborhood agencies to help out. That is commendable.
But it is important to remember that poverty is not a seasonal occurrence. Some of our neighbors struggle to make ends meet throughout the year. They need agencies like WCAC to help them. And we need to make sure that our government continues to support WCAC’s mission.
As Americans, we need to remember that helping our fellow citizens is about as American as it gets. An investment in people like Casandra or Kiyara makes our community stronger.
Yes, this country was built on the hard work of those early settlers and the generations that followed. But it was also built on a foundation of compassion for our fellow citizens in need.
Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all.
Raymond V. Mariano is a Worcester Sun columnist. He is the former mayor of Worcester and former executive director of the Worcester Housing Authority. Ray grew up in Great Brook Valley and holds degrees from two city universities. He comments on his hometown every Sunday in Worcester Sun.