Friday, February 19, 2010

First Visit to Cooperative Extension

Friday, January 15, 2010

After meeting with Leigh Anne Aaron and Debbie Phillips at the cooperative extension in Danielsville, I understood Professor Thomas’s mantra “Every story is a health story.”

The poverty rate in Madison County is in line with national averages, which are 13-17% at any given time. But when Leigh Anne looked up the rate for me in the 2009 Georgia County Guide, Debbie said “Is that all?” They must see a lot of poverty. Over the next hour and a half, Leigh Anne and Debbie shared with me the struggles of the rural poor that they have witnessed through their work at the cooperative extension.

I saw that every story about the poor is a health story because being poor means doing without and what the poor do without is some of the basic necessities of good health. And they aren’t the necessities of good health that I might have thought of right away, like health insurance. It’s not just lack of money; it’s lack of intangible things, mainly information, which have a major impact on health. And they lack access to tangible things as well. In Madison County, those tangible things are hospitals, public transportation and sidewalks. So being a car-less resident of Madison Co. might make getting to a doctor’s appointment simply impossible. This may lead to not seeking medical care at all, and the cycle goes on and on.

Beth Heath, the county nurse manager, told me that while clients can see a nurse for free at the health department, if they need a doctor, the nearest free doctor is at Mercy Clinic in Athens. All the doctors there are volunteers and wait times for an appointment average about two weeks. The wait time combined with the hurdle of transportation makes it likely that health department clients will just leave their problems untreated if they can’t be resolved by a nurse.

This cycle is compounded by the fact that some of the poor of Madison Co. are forced to choose between resources that could help them improve their situation and social services that they need urgently. Debbie said that some social services in the area use cell phone ownership and Internet subscriptions as indicators of someone’s not being “poor enough” to get assistance.

A number of programs available to the needy in Madison County illuminate specific needs of the residents and also story ideas.

Leigh Anne holds a grant position for energy education. She educates natural gas consumers on ways to save money and on resources available for assistance in paying heating bills. She says people lose their heat every year – many of whom were unaware of resources or protective laws. Leigh Anne has visited homes heated by conventional ovens or camp stoves, i.e. an open flame burning atop a tank of gas. The Obama administration announced in January that it is releasing $50 billion dollars in federal money to LIHEAP (Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program), $19 million of which has been allocated to the state of GA.

Teenage pregnancy is also an issue in the county. Teen mothers are so prevalent in the county that a support group meets after school at the high school. Some participants are pregnant; others are already mothers. The group is run by a volunteer – a Jackson EMC employee – who was a teen mother herself. She brings in speakers (doctors, nurses, health educators) to educate the girls on nutrition, pre-natal care, breast feeding, etc. Nancy Bridges, the cooperative extension’s family and consumer services agent for Madison Co., has given nutrition workshops for this group.

The county has just gotten a Teen Matters Clinic. Its presence illustrates the need for sexual education for teens, reproductive healthcare and access to contraceptives.

The health department also runs the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Coalition, a program that trains parents to hosts “parties” for other parents of teens, and at these parties, the host teaches the guests effective ways to teach their children about pregnancy prevention within the framework of their own beliefs and values, be they Christian-based abstinence or something else.

Finally, hunger is an issue in Madison Co., and this is apparent in the presence of several charitable programs that get food to the needy, such as Angel Food Ministries (monthly in Madison) and the USDA’s quarterly commodities drop-off. I’d like to go to a commodities drop-off if one falls during this semester – if not an Angel Food Ministries pick-up – and report on the people who use these services. I’d like to put a real face on hunger in our area. I think hunger is too often associated only with people in very far away places, and I think a story about who is hungry in our area (and why) would be illuminating.

I recognize that an obstacle to all of my story ideas is that I would like to meet people who may feel some shame about their situations: the poor who cannot pay for their heat, the hungry, and teen mothers. I’ll get a lot of practice on this beat in gaining the trust of my sources.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

First Drive to Madison County

Friday, January 15, 2010

Heading north on 29 out of Clarke County towards Danielsville, I watched the landscape clearing to my left and my right. The intervals between buildings grew larger and the buildings smaller. The landscape changed from comparatively urban to rural. And I literally sighed with pleasure. A flea market in a dilapidated metal building with a hand-painted sign that reads GRAND OPENING; tiny houses, their paint chipping, set far from the road; the simple life.

Then I remembered Australian journalist Suzanne Clarke’s A House in Fez and her attitude towards poverty in Morocco. In one scene, she goes to Marrakesh after not having seen it for four years, and she is disappointed that a city square that was once packed with peddlers at makeshift carts and “food stalls that were wheeled out every night, once helter-skelter, had been tidied up. They were now in neat rows […], numbered and lit up, their menus displayed on boards […] Where was the glorious panoply of culinary choice in a charmingly rundown setting that had once existed? I was dismayed to see a modern, fluorescent-lit boutique between the stalls.”

Charmingly rundown? Had she wanted the people of Marrakesh to live “helter-skelter” lives forever so that she could maintain her romantic view of poverty? So that she could be “charmed” by their “rundown” world every time she decided to spend a weekend away from Fez, where she was pouring money into the house she was renovating there? It seemed to meet that felt Marrakesh was a theme park. But it was someone’s reality, whether or not it was hers. She was “dismayed” that in the four years since she’d been gone, the peddlers of Marrakesh had been able to bring something “modern” – if only fluorescent light – into their lives? That they’d been able to “tidy up” and organize themselves into businessmen and women in the hopes of bettering their lives?

It was just like many tourists I'd seen when I was living in Brazil who’d shoot picture after picture of the favelas (slums) and call them “amazing.” Well, I’m glad you like them! Glad you could come down to Brazil and see something so beautiful as human suffering! Brazilians have a word for this. They say that tourists love the pobreleza (pobreza [poverty] + beleza [beauty]). It upset me to see people so charmed by misfortune.

And now I had just sighed at what might be “quaint” indicators of poverty myself. Wasn’t “the simple life” just a phrase coined by people who could choose that life – whether for vacations or permanently? For some people rural life is not simple at all, precisely because it is rural. For many, the rural landscape – void of hospitals, even sidewalks in Madison Co. – can make life pretty complicated.