Poverty internships open eyes

kelsey hoffmanKelsey Hoffman ’15 was shocked by what she found in rural Arkansas during her summer internship with the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty at Washington and Lee (W&L) University.

“The hardest part for me was the racism,” Kelsey said. “It’s like taking a step back in time.”

Kelsey, Wil Johns ’15, and Kelly Sawyer ’15, all members of the Bonner Leaders Program, did poverty-related internships this summer. (Click on the links to read their stories.)

Kelsey’s  internship was, perhaps, the most disturbing. The racial divide is firmly in place in the Mississippi delta, she said. Swimming pools are still segregated and police will arrest a black man for talking with a white woman.

“Whites and blacks don’t talk at all,” she said. “We were looked at very suspiciously.”

Kelsey was one of six interns working in the area and five were white women. Kelsey worked at the Family Center, which has two domestic shelters and a food bank. “We served children that wouldn’t have gotten meals otherwise,” she said.

Unlike many food banks, this one delivered to people’s homes because most didn’t have transportation, and many of the parents were strung out on crack cocaine, Kelsey said. The houses they visited were surrounded by empty beer cans and trash, and looked like pictures of living quarters in third-world countries. Toddlers sat around in soiled diapers for hours.

The bright spot was that 13 women signed up for cooking classes to learn how to cooks more nutritional meals. Kelsey taught them to make healthier pizzas with tortillas, sauce, and cheese; macaroni with whole wheat pasta; and baked chicken with corn cereal for crust instead of fried chicken. After the lesson, the parents were taken home along with the ingredients to cook for their families.

The only food source for the area was Wal-Mart; there were no restaurants. Some families supplemented their diets with fishing and small gardens. “I learned so much about food insecurity,” Kelsey said.

Kelsey shared a trailer with two other interns, which had mice, but no furniture. They slept on mattresses on the floor and lived on $14 a day for food, gas, and other living expenses.

The experience convinced Kelsey that her double major in psychology and sociology is the right one to pursue. “Poverty is my passion,” she said.

Kelsey found some culture shock upon returning to LC, where there is an overabundance of food and other consumer goods. “It’s been hard to come back to everybody having everything,” she said.

In addition to being a Bonner Leader, Kelsey is philanthropic chair of Alpha Sigma Alpha and an intern for Beacon of Hope in Lynchburg City Schools, where she is a “scholar mentor” for high school students on free or reduced lunches to encourage them to consider education and training beyond high school.

A first-generation college student herself, Kelsey feels she can connect with students who might not have family support or experience preparing for college or technical schools. Her summer internship reinforced her realization that poverty is not some distant, abstract idea.

“People think they need to go to Africa to help,” she said “You can do it right here.”