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Jewish World Review July 21, 2000 / 18 Tamuz, 5760

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez
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Consumer Reports

We can't give up -- ROBERTO FIRST CAME to us in 1991 when he was 6 years old as part of a program to send underprivileged kids to live out of the city for a few weeks each summer. He was bright-eyed and eager, a sweet, lovely boy who instantly won my family's affection. Since then, Roberto has visited every year, with his younger sister Maria (not their real names), now 9, joining him three years ago. Over time, we have become more deeply involved with the children and their family, a single mom and two older siblings. The experience has been as frustrating as it has been rewarding, leaving me convinced that multigenerational poverty cannot be solved simply with money.

Neither Roberto nor Maria know their fathers (of the four children, only the two older siblings share the same father). Maria has seen her dad once, an experience that fills her with pain. Roberto won't talk much about his father, except to say that he is married and has other children. Their mother has never held a job in the nine years I've known the family, and it is unclear how they support themselves. Roberto says he cannot work during the summer or after school, even though he has grown into a strong young man, because it would jeopardize the family's government checks. Welfare reform seems not to have touched this family. The mother frequently enrolls in self-improvement courses, but never looks for work.

The first year Roberto visited, he was eager to learn to read. During his two-week stay, I helped him learn simple words from old Dr. Seuss books. Nonetheless, his vocabulary was limited, and he could barely count. As each year passed, he seemed to be falling further behind, and I worried that he would fall in with the wrong group of kids. So in 1996, I offered to send him to Catholic school, where I thought he would learn more and be less likely to get into trouble. The following year, I agreed to send Maria to the same parochial school.

At first, I noticed a great deal of improvement in the kids, especially in Roberto. But during his second year in parochial school, Roberto began to encounter difficulties. He just couldn't keep up, and he was beginning to get in fights with other kids. The same year, his sister was held back in second grade.

I was never able to learn much from the school about why the children were failing -- schools are very wary of communicating information to non-family members. Roberto's mom was of little help, either -- she didn't even let me know that Maria had failed second grade. But a few weeks ago, I discovered a clue. Calling the house to arrange the kids' visit, I found out that their mother was gone -- not for a few hours on some errand, but for more than two months -- leaving the children virtually alone. An older sibling would check in from time to time, leave money for groceries, and cook a few meals. But basically the kids, 15 and 9, were on their own.

I immediately arranged for the children to come stay with me -- and began working to convince the mother to return from Puerto Rico, where she had gone initially to see her ailing mother, who died in early June. During the children's stay, I learned that this was not the first episode where their mother had disappeared for long periods. I also learned that others have tried to intervene to help this family --with the same frustrations.

There are no easy answers. Taking the children away from their mother would make matters much worse, given the current foster care system. Roberto has gone back to public school, where he acknowledges most of his friends are gang members. Maria remains in parochial school, but she struggles to keep up. Her school principal tells me that Maria almost never makes it to school on time. This summer, we worked on her multiplication tables, though she still has trouble adding single digits.

No amount of money I or the government might give these children can teach them about responsibility or give them the discipline to break out of their cycle of poverty. But if they can avoid having any babies until they finish high school, learn to get to places on time, and most importantly, discover the dignity of work, they may yet succeed. Otherwise, there is little hope their lives will be different from their mother's.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate