As charity celebrates 31st birthday, need for its services soars
About two years ago, when her husband was deployed to Afghanistan, Emma and her infant daughter moved to Missouri to stay with his parents, who could help take care of their granddaughter.
But soon after moving in, Emma’s relationship with her husband soured, and soon they split up. Still a teenager, Emma was alone with an infant daughter in tow. She lived in her car and with friends as long as they would have her. Keeping herself and her daughter safe and healthy was more than she could manage, let alone look for work.
For months, she bounced around. Finally, she was referred to Sts. Joachim and Ann Care Service in St. Charles County. The charity, which prides itself on providing comprehensive assistance, gave Emma groceries and helped her receive all the help she was eligible for. More importantly, they soon found her an apartment.
Sts. Joachim and Ann’s is still helping Emma today, but the worst is behind her. She told her story in a panel discussion on poverty and hunger in St. Charles, Lincoln and Warren counties last week when the charity marked its 31st birthday. Other panelists included school officials, charity workers, county officials and doctors.
The day she got her apartment, Emma said, holding her daughter, “was the second-happiest day of my life.”
According to Pam Struckhoff, director of program services at St. Joachim and Ann’s, the stagnant economy, and the crash of the construction industry, have left many people in situations like Emma’s. (To protect their privacy, the organization used only the clients' first names.)
“We just want to educate people about what’s going on,” Struckhoff said. “I don’t think they know the depth of the problem.”
Median household incomes in all three counties are above the Missouri median, but hunger and poverty are still growing problems here.
According to a 2010 report by the University of Missouri, the percentage of households with children facing food uncertainty in St. Charles County is 11.7 percent. For both Warren and Lincoln counties, that number is 19.1 percent. Statewide, it is 26 percent.
Because poverty and hunger are less pronounced in the tri-county area than they are in most of the state, many people ignore the problems altogether, said Dottie Kastigar, the community development program coordinator on the Community Council of St. Charles County.
“A lot of folks out here move [here] to get away from the problems,” she said. “Here it’s not as apparent – you have to look a little harder.”
Still, in recent years the problems have become easier to see. The weak economy has left many formerly middle-class people struggling to make ends meet.
According to Kastigar, St. Charles County has seen a tripling of homelessness in the past five years, “and food insecurity is on top of that.” She attributes the rise to the downturn of the economy and the growth of the county.
Even as these issues have grown, however, St. Charles County’s funding for health and human services has declined, both as a percentage of all spending and as an absolute dollar amount. In 2010, the county spent about $5.5 million; in 2012, it spent $4.45 million.
One of Sts. Joachim and Ann’s clients, Robert, spoke from the panel about his fall from an $80,000-a-year job in construction into destitution.
“I’m a proud man, and I’ve never had to ask for help in my life,” he said. But after losing his job four years ago, Robert ended up living out of his car, spending nights in hospital parking lots. He became caught in a downward spiral.
“It’s not that I didn’t want to work,” he said. “To get a job you need a phone, to get a job you need an address, to get a job you need email [access].”
When he finally approached a St. Joachim and Ann’s staffer for help in a motel parking lot, Robert said he was completely out of money and had only a quarter tank of gas.
“This is a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps community,” Kastigar said. “It takes a long time for people to reach out.”
When they do reach out, though, Kastigar said it is critical that they find the help they need. Because of the area’s affluence, social services and charities have been small and limited in the past. But starting around 2007, “people asking for help couldn’t get help,” Kastigar said.
Conditions are even worse in Lincoln County, where Becky Hoskins is the executive director of the county’s Resource Board.
“You can hardly fathom what’s going on in our county,” Hoskins said. “Things have changed so quickly … The infrastructure can’t keep up with the need.”
Delays or rejections can be especially harmful to young children. Dr. Sandra McKay, a pediatrician, said kids who don’t get enough food don’t develop normally.”
“We can identify it in the office, but how do you fix it at home?” she said.
Schools face a similar dilemma. Jennifer Patterson, director of student services and operations in the Francis Howell school district, said the number of students in her district eligible for free and reduced-price lunches has risen from 13.4 percent in 2009 to 17.2 percent in 2011.
The school district makes an active effort to make sure all eligible students are signed up for the program. For example, as long as one child turns in the necessary forms, his or her siblings are all automatically qualified as well.
But finding food can be hard during the weekends, school breaks or even for breakfast and dinner. In response, some schools in the Francis Howell district are providing students with food for the weekends.
“We need to solve the whole situation,” said Cynthia Berry, a psychologist who has worked with area governments.
The solution, at least in St. Charles, Warren, and Lincoln counties, includes St. Joachim and Ann’s.
“The providers start with Sts. Joachim and Ann’s. Everyone starts with Sts. Joachim and Ann’s,” Hoskins said. “If we’re going to expect them to be the gatekeepers, we need to make sure they have the funding they need.”
For Robert, the solution began to emerge the day he asked for help.
The staffer he approached talked to him and brought him in to Sts. Joachim and Ann’s for some basic supplies.
Since that day, over a year ago, Robert has been able to get back on his feet, finding work and a place to live.
That night, after asking for help, Robert said, “eating a Kit-Kat bar and having a box full of groceries that were mine was so important … It gave me something to build on.”