Grief, Schools and Poverty – The Invisible Children

Have you ever lost someone close to you? Someone who was an integral part of your life, maybe a parent, grandparent, spouse or sibling?

How did that feel? How long did it take you to find a new “normal”? When did your concentration on your daily activities, such as work, return?

Every day I think about children who have lost a parent and wonder how they can possibly manage school. Recently, my daughters had a chance to attend Comfort Zone Camp which was an amazing opportunity for them to meet other kids like them. At the end of the weekend, we had the opportunity to hear from the social workers regarding the unique challenges students in each age group were facing. One key takeaway for me was the need to normalize loss within our school system. Our schools don’t know how to help grieving children. Many times the policies do not allow kids the time or space to grieve.

Death is a consequence of living, but that doesn’t mean it is easy for those left behind. Many students at the camp were struggling in school – either academically, behaviorally, or both. I cannot imagine being in their shoes. I know how hard it was for me to focus at work – for months – after Steve died. I didn’t have tests, I didn’t have other kids asking me questions or trying to be “normal” at the most awkward time in life. I wasn’t trying to make or keep friendships that can come and go so fast as personalities change. I wasn’t dealing with the overwhelming pressure of social media and the access to instantaneous information.

I have started talking more about grief and helping kids manage through grief while still achieving what they need to in school. Often, I am met with denial that a real problem exists or empathy but no understanding of why action is required. Why add grief to the mix when we already talk about poverty, race, and family structure?  Heck, even gender issues get more press than grief – and there are a lot more students struggling with grief than are struggling with gender identity.

Here is why it matters– and it should matter to every single community in the US. The loss of a parent means that these kids now fit the more common focus demographics of single parent households and poverty. Schools and communities focus on these two items when they talk about community support and improvement, but I have not heard one school talk about death as one of the key causes. The last census showed that 27% of widows ages 18-44 live in poverty – this is the prime age for widows to also have dependent children. That is almost double the rate of poverty in the county where I live – which is one of the higher counties in the nation. Widows were 65% more likely to live in poverty than their divorced peers. The problem goes beyond the notion of a single parent household.

I challenge everyone to think about poverty and single parent households, then add in the complete loss of security when a parent is no longer there, grief (remember the feelings you had from the opening questions?), and the loss of income which often results in the loss of the home – their safe place in a world full of change.  Can you imagine being the parent whose income is cut it half (or worse)?

Can you imagine being these children?

Poverty and single parent households are not hidden problems in the community. Compounding grief is that hidden x-factor that no one wants to talk about. Because it is hard. And we can’t fix it. But we can do things to help these kids. We can do things to help these parents in an extremely scary and uncertain part of their life.

What can we (every single one of us) do?

Last night at a community talk they highlighted “mobile vaccination units” to make sure kids are able to attend school on the first day because some parents are not capable of making the required appointments for their children. Many groups talk about the need to bring services to the people because they have no vehicle or transportation and that is a significant barrier to get basic life activities accomplished. These services are available to bridge the gap for kids that don’t have parents or caregivers that are responsible enough to complete required tasks for their children. That is a harsh statement, but true. I support these efforts because the kids cannot do it on their own and they deserve the opportunity to have an education. But, what about the kids and parents that have tried to do everything to the best of their ability and had tragedy impact their ability to be successful? What are we doing for them? In almost all cases, we as a society are doing nothing. Because we literally do not see or understand the problem. Or, they are lumped in with traditional single parent, poverty stereotypes with no understanding of the compounding loss that truly shapes their life.

What if we mobilized for children after loss? What if we meet them where they are? How much more could they learn with a focused tutor versus being thrust back in a classroom where everything is the same, yet nothing is the same for them? How do we give these kids the time and space they need throughout the day in school? I know there were times I needed to race to the bathroom or my car just to have a few moments to manage a breakdown – and I am an adult with years of experiencing managing my emotions. How do we allow the same space for kids? What “bereavement time” or bereavement options can we give to kids that have to meet requirements for state mandated days in school each year? What do kids at different age levels need so they still have the opportunity to still be successful after the loss of a parent or caregiver?

How can we support these kids in our communities? It is more than food and gift cards. It is time spent reading. Time spent helping with math. Time given to the remaining parent so they don’t have the stress of ensuring their kids don’t fall behind with their education when they can barely find the energy to take a shower. Time allowed for grief and the frustration that comes with it. There may be extra time needed on tests, and potentially a prioritization of work knowing that the focus just won’t be there to get everything done. I know I accomplished much less for months. I can only imagine the challenges these children feel as they try to keep up and even make up assignments and tests that were missed while they were out for a funeral.

Every age is different. For elementary school kids it is likely help with reading, math, and possibly some fun STEM projects to help them learn. Middle school may be focused help with core subjects, likely STEM, and possibly writing or drawing as that can be an outlet for grief. Identifying solid friends as well as individuals that can be consistent support network also benefits these kids. High school students may need more time with trusted friends – time just to be themselves. Identifying those friends or peers that can understand what they are going through as well as being a positive role model is critical. These students also need help setting goals as many feel they don’t have the same opportunities they may have had before. A consistent mentor helping with career planning and support in meeting their educational requirements would increase their chances of success exponentially.

This is a post full of questions and only a few ideas for answers. It’s a complex and hidden problem that has no single solution. The first step is awareness…then comes action. I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions. If you have lost a parent or a spouse and would like to share your experience I’d love to read what worked or didn’t work for you and your family.

The Dream Is Real.

My heart YWL_silhouetteis overflowing and it is coming out of my eyes.  At least that is what I think is happening to me as I write this.

The USPS delivered a letter which seems pretty simple but to me it means so much. The Young Widow Living Foundation is a thing. A real, tangible, thing. I’ve been dreaming about helping other widows through the darkness for over two years. Today, that dream is something real. The 501(c)3 approval came today and I am beyond excited.

What will this foundation do?

This foundation is intended to help widows stay out of poverty through education. This foundation is intended to make sure children who lost a parent don’t end up one of the statistics – statistics that say children from single parent households tend to score lower than their peers in school. This foundation is intended to bring families together for hands on activities such as STEM, character developing adventures, and the ability to connect with others going through the same challenges.

In short, the Young Widow Living Foundation is going to make a difference. Education can (and will) change the world – one person at a time.

The Back Story

Steve told me on many occasions that education was the only thing that would change the world. He had a passion for teaching, and honestly had a rare skill in doing so. He could teach you something without you realizing you were being taught. He was a tutor in college and later taught accounting and business courses when VCSU needed an extra professor. He did this at night – after his day job. These experiences ignited a passion for education and a drive to leave a legacy through helping others.

Starting the journey toward this goal included enrolling in an MBA program together. My goal was to advance my business knowledge. Steve wanted the degree so he would be eligible to be a professor. He died during the third quarter of our program. Steve was awarded his MBA posthumously. I earned mine a year and a half later. It was hard. It was even harder when I was grieving, raising two children, and trying to be successful in my job so I could provide for my little family.

When Steve died I knew almost immediately that I wanted to start a scholarship in his honor. Steve had been a member of the Valley City State University Foundation Board for many years. He was passionate about the school and scholarships. The Steve Welken Endowed Scholarship was announced at his prayer service and within the first 3 months we had raised over $10,000. Within 2 years we were over $30,000. This year will be our third year awarding scholarships in his name and it is an absolute honor to do so.

When I became a widow there was a lot of fear mixed in with grief. The fear revolved around raising my children alone and finances. I feared that I wouldn’t be able to provide enough for them. I worried about my ability to help them financially in college. Heck, I worried about the mortgage, taxes, and just about everything you can imagine. As a family our income was reduced over 50% in a day. To top it off, it seemed like all the articles about the deficits of children from one income families were coming out around the same time and it made me sick. We were now in that statistic – good or bad. I knew someday I wanted to come up with a way to help children that lost a parent through education. This dream blends Steve’s legacy of education with my experience as his widow.

The Young Widow Living Foundation is going to give hope to widows and widowers. We will build up the knowledge and capabilities of those left behind in honor of those that watch over us. .  

I hope you will consider joining this journey with me – either by helping connect new widows to the foundation or giving of your time, talent, and treasure.

There is so much more to come – stay tuned!

 

Leaving a Legacy Through Education

College GraduateEducation is important.

Steve had a passion for coaching, teaching and developing others. He had a love of education and continual learning through life. One of his goals (and bucket list items) was to transition from a corporate role into that of an educator. He dreamed of teaching business courses – especially entrepreneurship and coaching softball.

Building a Legacy

Prior to meeting me he had spent his evenings teaching courses at Valley City State University in accounting and finance. He also coached the college softball team for a season. It takes an amazing person to do all of that while cultivating a career that would eventually make him CEO of his company.

Steve remained active on the Valley City State University foundation board and truly felt like the work of the board was making a difference in the world. We were honored to be the V-500 (campus scholarship program) spotlight family in 2013. Unfortunately, Steve died before he was able to see the bulletins be mailed out.

Leaving a Legacy

There are so many students that will miss out on learning from him. Knowing this, I found an opportunity for him to still impact future generations through the development of the Steve Welken Memorial Scholarship. The VCSU Foundation office worked quickly in helping me establish an endowed scholarship and we announced it at his prayer service and also at his funeral.

You know a person had an impact on a university when the Foundation director (who is also the state representative) and the college president give speeches at the service. These messages helped to springboard this dream I had of leaving a legacy at VCSU in Steve’s honor. In one year we raised $36,500 – simply an amazing sum and a true testament to the impact he had on the people around him.

Awarding Scholarships

This endowment enabled me to award three scholarships to students in Steve’s name. The foundation hosts a dinner between donors and recipients and it was an honor for me to meet the first students that were impacted by Steve’s scholarship.

This year we picked names from a shortlist given to us by VCSU. These were students that met the scholarship criteria, but had not recieved a lot of scholarships to date. Next year the students will fill out an application with a couple of essay questions which will allow us to pick those that best represent Steve. Even without that information, I was impressed by the students I met.

The Recipients

Barbara is a junior, majoring in business administration with minors in both accounting and finance. Her GPA is over 3.9 and she also plays volleyball for VCSU. She comes from a farming background and is originally from Canada. She also received another scholarship, so we didn’t get to have dinner together, but I gave her my card and I hope to hear from her. This girl has potential to do great things and I am honored that Steve’s scholarship could help her.

Michelle is a local from Valley City also majoring in business administration, with minors in accounting and finance.  Her GPA is also above 3.9. Michelle is gaining experience in the banking industry by working part-time at the local bank while attending school. I spoke to an agribusiness class earlier in the week and she happened to be in the class. We were able to talk about many different opprotunities she could have for internships and future career opportunities over our supper. In her spare time she likes to barrel race. I didn’t know this when she was selected, but it make the decision seem even more right since the barrel racing community helped contribute to the scholarship fund.

The third recipient was Alexis, who majors in education. When I saw her name on the short list, I knew we had to give her the scholarship. Alexis is the daughter of Steve’s best friend, Tim. To Steve, Alexis was like a niece and one that he was very proud of. He told me that he wanted to figure out a way to give her a scholarship or money for school, so when I saw her name on the list I knew it was meant to be. I can guarantee he is looking down and smiling at the fact that Alexis was the first recipient of his scholarship. He was so proud of her and we both think she is an amazing, kind person who will be a wonderful teacher in the future.

Mixed Emotions

The scholarship dinner was hard. Very hard. I cried even though I tried hard not to. Steve’s dad came with to dinner and he also struggled. I looked around the room and saw many familiar faces – familiar only because of Steve.

When it came time for introductions I could barely get out who I was and what scholarshp I was representing. I’m usually fairly polished, but it was impossible to keep my composure in this setting. The emotions were more than I expected.

To finally have faces to bless with Steve’s scholarship was both rewarding and heartbreaking. How I wished he could have been in front of the room teaching them instead. The purpose of the scholarship was to tell the recipients about Steve and encourage them to make a difference in the world – to pay it forward.

I shared why we started the scholarship and about the man that Steve was. I also encouraged them to contact me as they prepare for internships or the start of their career. I hope they do and when the time comes I hope I can take some of the lessons that Steve taught me and pass them along to the next generation.

More Than Money

This scholarship is so much more than the money. As our girls get older we will select the recipients together. In doing so we will talk about their Dad, the man he was, the talents he had and the way he lived his life.

People say that children learn from what they experience at home. I hope this process helps my children understand what it means to be a true leader both professionally and in the community. I hope they see that we’re never “too busy” to make a difference in the world. Lastly, I hope they see that when you share your passions with people, they have the chance to become a part of your legacy.

Did you or someone you know ever receive a scholarship? What difference did that make for you or them?

Photo Credit: Will Folsom via Compfight cc