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Over the past few months, our community has been a beehive of conversation around the goings and comings of several school administrators, including our superintendent, high school principal, athletic director, board members, some coaches and other employees some community residents would prefer no longer worked for the school system.
The complaints against these school officials have stemmed from allegations that those holding these positions were not making decisions that were in the best interest of the children in our community. There have been many truths, half-truths, rumors, and plain old lies bandied about on social networking sites like Facebook and Topix, via email, and even over that dinosaur of a communication device, the telephone.
Every American has the right to free speech. I cherish that right as a citizen and a pastor. However, the right to do or say something does not make doing or saying it the right thing to do. I am reminded of those opposed to the building of a Muslim mosque near ground zero in NYC; they recognize the right of the building of the mosque but they point out that building the mosque at that sight is not the right thing to do. Each community member has the right to have a voice in the affairs of the school system, city or county government, etc. However, when the words and emotions being voiced become toxic, it is time take a step back and realize that we must refocus on those things that get in the way of our children being able to learn when they step into that classroom — their hunger, their need for affection and attention, and their very lives.
Let’s look at what we know about the children of Owen County. OC has 375 students — 20 percent of the students in grades kindergarten through 12th grade — who receive bags of food each Friday afternoon to get them through the weekend. And what’s even more alarming is to realize that number is up 70 percent from the number who received bags last year.
We have families right here in Owen County who don’t have the funds to put sufficient food on the table for their families, and the majority of these families are people who are working or not working by choice. They are people just like you and me who have discovered that there’s way too much month left at the end of the money in today’s economy.
We are “experiencing a growth in the number of students classified as homeless,” according to a report to board members by Charlotte Elkins, director of pupil personnel. Reports from the family and youth service centers show that clothing was provided for 68 students before or immediately after school started. These clothing items allowed students to attend school with at least one new outfit so they would “fit in” with other students who come to school sporting new clothes on the first day of school. They weren’t brand name clothes. They came from Walmart or other discount stores.
School supplies were provided for 109 students. These were in addition to school supplies students received at the Back to School Bash in early August. Nine students have been referred to counseling services for emotional issues since school started. Three families were provided assistance because their homes burned down.
At Meeting the Needs Ministry each Tuesday and Thursday, the number of families served with food and clothing requests grows on a monthly basis. And because the ministry provides services through donations and those are decreasing, the amount of money to provide these basic necessities is decreasing at an alarming rate.
Local churches receive calls on an almost daily basis for families needing assistance with their electric, water, gas or other utility bills. This is nothing new except that the requests continue to increase at an alarming rate. Giving at some local churches has dropped at an even more alarming rate, making it even harder to provide the help that is needed.
In Owen County, we have students who are abusing drugs and alcohol and having sexual intercourse just to fill a void in their lives created by a need for attention or empathy or compassion. On the 2008 developmental asset survey of Owen County middle- or high-school students in grades six through 12, 30 percent said they had had sexual intercourse and of those 24 percent said they never used protection.
There are children and adults in our community who find they are so overwhelmed with life that they see their only option to dealing with the pain of life is to end their life. Travesties that possibly could have been prevented had one person stopped to ask if there was anything they could do; had one person made a decision to put someone else first one day; had one person thought of someone else rather than themselves that day. The developmental asset survey mentioned above showed that 13 percent of sixth- through 12th-graders had attempted suicide one or more times. That’s 129 students who have felt, at one time or another, they had no reason to live another day.
As a community — a community that by and large professes to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior — it is time that we heed the words of Christ and love our neighbors as we have loved ourselves. It doesn’t matter who the superintendent, the principal, the board members, the athletic director, the coaches, the finance officer or the curriculum director is if our children are coming to school hungry; distracted from not having clothes to wear or a home in which to stay; feeling bad about the situation between themselves and their parents or a friend; or simply unhappy about the life in which they have found themselves living.
We can stay isolated and comfortable in our own homes, thinking none of this applies to me, thinking, “my kids are fed;” “my kids have clothes and school supplies;” “my kids don’t need counseling.” However, Jesus instructed us that when we care for the “least of these” that we are caring for Him. I know that this community is full of wonderful, God-fearing, God-honoring people who care deeply about others. Can we agree today that we need to open our eyes to the hurt and the pain that is all around us? Can we see the tennis shoes slung across the power lines in our community and understand that signifies the locations where drugs can be purchased? Can we understand that when kids wear dark clothes or color their hair odd colors, they aren’t just trying to be different, they are trying to figure out who they are and how they fit into this world?
Can we recognize the warning signs of depression and anxiety and realize that today’s kids face much greater stress and uncertainty than we faced while growing up. Can we offer a word of encouragement to the students and be a safe adult whom they can ask the questions with which they are struggling?
Can we recognize that as unemployment rates across the country grow, they do so right here in Owen County as well? And that means stresses on marriages, on families. Those stresses spill over to the kids.
Please, go to the school board meetings; go to the site-based council meetings. Voice your concerns. Be fully engaged and aware of the decisions being made by those chosen to serve the community. Voice your concerns with the issues you don’t agree with, but also hear the reports about the students who come to school hungry on Monday morning because they haven’t had anything to eat since they ate lunch on Friday. Hear the stories of those who have been kicked out of their homes by mom and dad. Do something about the 51 percent of middle- and high-school students who say that adults in this community don’t care about kids their age. My goodness, I pray that they are wrong.
It has been said that “Christians are often the only bible that some people will ever read.” What message are people reading as they watch you?
Tony Watkins is the pastor of Monterey Baptist Church.