By Royce Debow
Chair, Board of Directors
Community Action, Inc.
As a board member of Community Action Inc. of Rock and Walworth counties, I take pride in the programs we run that are aimed at creating pathways out of poverty. Whether it’s transitional housing, job training or other programs, the staff works to illuminate options for individuals in need.
With beautiful resorts, vibrant communities, diverse businesses, dairy and crop farms in Walworth County, as well as a state university and a technical college, many would view the area as a snapshot of middle class Americana. Rock County also enjoys diverse employers, ample farming operations and higher education opportunities with Beloit and Blackhawk technical colleges.
Both counties have arts communities, family businesses, medium and large employers, and quality public and private schools. Recreational opportunities abound. The lake communities in Walworth County and the Rock River bring tourists and visitors who infuse millions of dollars into local economies.
By comparison, our residents have lower than average incomes and more poverty than the typical Wisconsin county. Food pantries are active and social services administered by the counties are busier than most would agree they should be. We live in a place with more people in poverty than most of us likely realize. That truth was underscored for me personally during a recent experience. The church my family attends holds an annual gingerbread house event where families enjoy dinner and build a gingerbread house with supplies provided by the church.
While sitting in an early December Sunday service and hearing the pastor promote the event, it occurred to me that Twin Oaks Homeless Shelter, a Community Action facility on the Rock and Walworth county line, would likely have some families with young children.
The evening of gingerbread-house building, I signed out a church van to pick up three families from the shelter to attend the event. The van was filled with excited chatter from the kids about where we were going and what it would be like. Less than a mile from the shelter, one of the youngest children repeatedly said what a “great” car this was and what a “nice” car this was. Keep in mind; we’re talking about a plain white church van with vinyl bench seats. Then, the child said, ‘Mom, can we live in this car?’ While everyone continued their conversations anticipating the evening’s activities, the voice of that young child, plaintively asking if she and her family could live in the van, were the most shattering words I’ve ever heard.
Where we live is among many who we probably think are mostly like us, and, some who are more fortunate, and some who are less fortunate. What we may not know, is where or how they live and what can make a difference in their lives, especially those experiencing extremely difficult times. A young child’s plea to “live” in the “nice car” is unforgettable. Where we live, how we live, and how we see and help those around us is what can matter more than I ever realized before this experience.
Mr. Debow has been a member of CAI’s Board of Directors for approximately 7 years and has served as Board Chair since June 2012. Formerly Chief of Staff for Representative Tom Lothian, he currently teaches in the areas of marketing and public policy and works with the Wisconsin Realtors Association.
About Community Action
Community Action is a 100% local, not-for-profit organization, operating a broad spectrum of community programs aimed at preventing and reducing local poverty in Rock and Walworth counties. It operates the Fresh Start program, offers child care, at-risk youth programming, teen parent support, women’s health care, senior benefits counseling, homeownership programs, affordable housing units, home weatherization and rehab, assistance in dealing with a housing crisis, food for area pantries, and shelter for the homeless.