Friday, July 2, 2010

Just a Walk in the Park

Shalina Harris with her sons, Semaj, 3, and Damon, 13.

Children sat on picnic tables, digging through paper bags and munching on pizza while a small line formed underneath a shady tree. Members of the United Faith General Baptist Church in Pontiac and Dubrae Newman of the Oakland Livingston Human Service Agency were passing out bagged lunches to the children, some of whom kept coming up to see if there were leftovers.

Many of these children receive free or reduced lunches during the school year, so when summer rolls in, the U.S. Department of Education continues to provide the meals with area partners. OLHSA has 42 sites, many of which are in Pontiac.

As I watched these children look for more food, and grab at a plastic cup of fruit, my heart ached. And as I write this now, and stare at my uneaten bagel, I feel worse.
Many of the kids have been coming for years, and Dubrae knows them by name.

"Hey, how you doing? Where's you're brother?" he asked one child.
"Summer school," replied a young girl with braided hair, which seemed to be a common answer.

Many of these children rely on these meals.

"If it wasn't for these lunches, these kids would be hungry," sad volunteer Roberta Rhinehart. "A lot of the time, they want seconds."

The volunteers, from both Pontiac and Waterford, come to this park Monday through Friday to pass out the lunches. They chat with the kids and parents, and pick up the area. Last year, they passed out 65,000 lunches, and Dubrae expects that number to rise.

Many children came to the park alone, some had parents with them.
Shalina Harris brought her sons Semaj and Damon.

"I think it's a good program, and it helps a lot of people out," Shalina said. "This helps us save a little at home."

Needless to say, times are tough in Michigan, and cities like Pontiac fair badly in comparison to the rest of the county.

Damon, who likes playing baseball, said the food tastes just like it does at school. Remembering my own hot lunches, I wondered if that was a good or bad thing. But the pizza didn't look as bad as it did during my cafeteria days.

My contribution for the day was to count off how many lunches were taken. This day was less; I marked off 45. After I was done with that, I started picking up trash in the park. In my black kitten heels and a pair of latex gloves, I chatted with the women about why they volunteer, and about the city in general as we threw trash in a black plastic bag.

A week ago, the volunteers cleaned it in preparation for the summer lunch program, and found knives and broken bottles. I surprisingly, still found a lot of broken glass. I was told there used to be a basketball court, but the city removed it because people continued to smash glass bottles on it. Pontiac gets a bad rap for a lot of things. But in part, it's understandable. While we picked up discarded wrappers, bottles and glass, some parents sat on benches yakking on their cell phones. This is where they live. This is where their children play. Yet, some seemed oblivious. Or perhaps they take no pride in the city that has done them no favors.

Thankfully, services like OLHSA strive to ensure that children will have it a bit easier. I know parents struggle, and some are just doing all they can to keep their families together, but I can't help thinking that these children deserve better, and I doubt I will forget the image of a little hand reaching into a nearly empty crate for a cup of fruit.

1 comment:

  1. I was missing my summer lunch kids today and decided to check this site for pictures. My husband had a stroke a while back and I am his 24/7 caregiver. I can't do lunches at Baldwin Park and I miss my kids. I would like to thank Dubrae Newman for filling in for me. To most of the kids and myself, he's a lifesaver.
    To my kids, eat your lunch, enjoy the park, it was a long time coming and remember to say your prayers at nite. Oh yeah, throw your paper in the trash!
    I love you all, thanks for being that safey net to those who need it most-our kids.
    Mona Hofmeister