On April 22, community members gathered virtually with Fremont Area Community Foundation for Stronger Together: Life in the Margins. The event was the third in the Community Foundation’s Stronger Together Series, which began last November and will continue through 2021.
Carla Roberts, Community Foundation president and CEO, welcomed attendees and introduced the series and the evening’s topic. “The Stronger Together Series was built on a simple truth: we all have a story,” she said. “In our community, thousands of residents have difficulty meeting basic needs such as housing, food, and healthcare. But what does it actually mean to live in poverty in Newaygo County?”
Roberts then welcomed State Representative Scott VanSingel, who represents the 100th District and serves on the Michigan Poverty Task Force Advisory Council. VanSingel shared data and updates on work at the state level to address poverty.
“Newaygo County is a great place to live,” said VanSingel, highlighting outdoor recreation, lower housing costs, and higher rates of home ownership. “It’s not all negative, but we do have some problems.”
VanSingel shared that Newaygo County’s poverty rate is 15.7 percent while the state average is 13 percent. He mentioned local challenges like internet access, fewer people with health insurance, median income lower than the state average, and a lower rate of educational attainment. He also shared updates on education funding, unemployment, and childcare funding at the state level.
Following VanSingel’s update, Christina Yuhasz moderated a panel discussion with four Newaygo County residents. Yuhasz is a parent liaison with Newaygo County Great Start and a trusted advisor with Family Information Service Hub (FISH). FISH hubs and advisors travel around the county helping connecting families to available local resources.
During the discussion, panelists shared their experiences and talked about misconceptions and stigma they have encountered related to poverty.
Panelist Krista Sellers shared that while most people don’t set out to be unkind, “there is still a stigma there,” she said. “Usually in the checkout lines nobody says anything, but if you pull a food card out to purchase your groceries, that is a big one.”
A major misconception that panelists mentioned repeatedly was the idea that people in poverty are lazy or just aren’t working hard enough. Panelist Laura Hesting said that despite being a household with two working parents, there were times when her family still needed assistance.
“People just wanted to presume that we didn’t work and we were lazy, but we did work. We worked hard,” said Hesting. “People in our community need to realize that just because you’re on assistance, doesn’t mean you’re lazy and doesn’t mean you don’t work. Pre-COVID, I typically worked 60 hours a week. For the past three years I’ve probably never worked less than three jobs and still lived in poverty.”
Panelists also talked about what it’s like to be disregarded or overlooked due to their circumstances and what our community can do to change that experience. They mentioned the importance of sharing opportunities and to opening one’s circle and connections to others. Nicole Coyne shared a personal passion to encourage more assistance to allow all kids to be involved in extracurricular activities, regardless of their financial circumstances.
Eric Puff talked about the lessons he hopes to pass on to his child. “Yes, the class distinction is there,” he said. “But if that’s where your eyes stop, then shame on you. Everybody’s value is inherent, and it has nothing to do with how much money they’re bringing home.”
As the event concluded, moderator Christina Yuhasz encouraged those listening to continue the conversation.
“We need to continue talking about poverty,” Yuhasz said. “I think when tonight ends, we don’t stop talking about poverty and what it’s like to live in poverty. Continuing to have these conversations is what’s going to change Newaygo County and what’s going to change the world.”
Stronger Together is a series of events designed to look at differences, identity, and the stories that shape our lives. The first event in November featured former Newaygo County residents and authors Razel Jones and Daniel Abbott who spoke about race, learning to navigate difficult spaces and conversations, and their new memoir Wounds. A February event addressed ageism and the experiences of younger and older members of the community.
The next event in the Stronger Together Series will take place in August. As future events are announced, information can be found on the Community Foundation’s social media channels (@FremontAreaCF) and on its website, facommunityfoundation.org.