By Jason Burger, Assistant News Editor
When people think of any small town in America, they generally picture something out of a country music song.
It’s easy to think of barns, trucks, grain silos, horses and creek banks that are good for fishin’.
Certain people also come to mind. Good ole’ country boys, farmers and women with tender hearts usually are thought of right off the bat.
Smaller towns are not usually places where people would think to look for a problem such as poverty.
Yet, in a town such as Shawnee, it’s a problem that becomes more evident simply by driving any southern route toward the downtown area.
Recently, the state average for persons in poverty was 16.1 percent. In the same year, Shawnee sat above that average at 17 percent.
Data also shows that of the entire population in Shawnee, 28 percent of residents have an income below the poverty level, meaning that anywhere from a single person to a family of four, they make approximately $12,060 to $41,320 a year. Oklahoma as a whole has 21.5 percent of its residents living with income under the poverty level.
All these figures are just that: figures. They can give some kind of perspective into the poverty situation in Shawnee, but other than that, you can’t get a real, tangible grip on the poverty issue in the town until you hear what some of the people that live the reality have to say.
Katie Ward, a senior OBU student, and graduate student Maddi Roach put together an event called Owning Poverty, which attempted to humanize the reality of poverty on a personal level.
The event, which was held at the Shawnee Public Library March 23rd, displayed several statements made by the people that live in poverty on a regular basis. Here are their stories:
“I’m always going to be financially in poverty; I’m bipolar and disabled, which can be challenging,” Joseph Akins, Shawnee resident and member of the Salvation Army’s Getting Ahead program said.
“After quitting rodeo [after 23 years], I became homeless and stayed at the Salvation Army. I planned to move to Corpus Christi, Texas for a job opportunity, however, the job fell through.”
Akins also discussed how he struggled to trust other people along the way.
“I came to realize that middle class individuals tend to have the chance to network and get to know others, and trusting comes naturally,” Akins said.
“Whereas for those in poverty, there is not as much of an opportunity to develop new friendships. Its not as easy to trust others.”
Akins noted that he keeps a positive attitude by attempting to give back to the community, and make the most out of his situation.
“Today, I am giving back as much as I can to the community,” Akins said.
“I am involved with the BluePrints class and have also been asked to serve on the Board of Directors for Neighboring 101. Overall, relationships have helped me stay motivated with being involved in the community. I hope people will realize that just because you are in poverty does not mean that you are a bad person.”
Despite the struggles of living through poverty on a daily basis, people such as Kyle Spears, a Shawnee resident who had to have a brain tumor removed, remain strong despite the cards that life dealt him.
“At the time, I did not realize how much it [the tumor] would affect my life…even my family’s life,” Spears said.
“At the end of the day, being diagnosed and then living through the grit of it all gave me more perspective than I could ever have imagined.”
Spears talked about how his medical situation caused several struggles, on top of dealing with living in poverty.
“Life just…changed. It’s hard to measure or quantify,” Spears said. “At first it was difficult, and it stayed that way for a long time.
“I faced the challenge of getting my medication just right, battling weight gain, combating my emotional breakdowns, and running into people who thought I had died. . .seriously!”
Spears also said through seeking some help, he is now able to handle his problems more effectively.
“All in all, I’m able to approach my problems with a clearer mind,” Spears said. “Now I can successfully juggle several problems without collapsing. I have dealt with struggles from my adolescent years. Because of a terrible experience, my brain seemed to change how it handled business, and it was not for the better. By recognizing what my issues were, I was able to fix the problems.”
Although it might seem as if there is a disconnect between the poverty population and normal day-to-day routines at OBU, one resident of Shawnee looks to Bison Hill for inspiration, and a goal to work toward.
Terry Bowen, a Shawnee resident, makes it a point to attend as many Canterbury worship nights as he can, and hopes to attend the university in the future.
“Music is the thing I’m the most proud of because it was the only outlet I had when I was growing up in school,” Bowen said. “After I graduate from GED classes this year or next, I want to go to OBU to study music or religion. I’ll be the oldest student there, but you’re never too old to learn.” Bowen is 63 years old.
Despite Bowen’s positive ambitions, his story is one of the most brutal to hear.
“I’m not mentally handicapped, but when I was seven years old, that is the classification I got: borderline mentally handicapped,” Bowen said.
“When I was eight, my mom got my dad to sign the papers to put me in [a certain school]. They’d hire anybody off the streets to take care of us. They didn’t care about us. Not a day went by when somebody wasn’t getting beaten.”
In the midst of his chaotic past, Bowen said he uses his faith to reach out to others living in poverty.
“I’ve got a special place in my heart for the homeless and mentally handicapped. I grew up with them, and kind of know where they are coming from,” Bowen said. “I realized a lot of homeless just got out of prison or are on drugs, and they need to hear the Word of God. They might have heard it, [before] but just didn’t listen.”
Other people in poverty felt the need to share their story at the Owning Poverty event in hopes that it might better the community, and offer a source of hope to those who feel that they are a lost cause. Brandi Collins, a Shawnee resident and a single mother of three children, is one of those people.
“I want to share this because there are people out there who don’t think they’re capable of recovering,” Collins said.
“I’m from a family of addicts. My father was an alcoholic. I didn’t realize it until I was older that his mom also struggled with drinking. I always called my dad ‘him’ because I couldn’t see him as a father figure.”
Collins pointed out that even though these circumstances can create grim results on a family, it does not mean you have to be a victim to them.
“I held a grudge against my father for many years until I better understood why he lived the way he did. My sobriety date is January 22nd. I have been sober for five years,” Collins said.
The Owning Poverty Showcase organized by Katie Ward and Maddi Roach will be on display at OBU on April 7th at 6 p.m. in room 218 of the Gieger Center.
The event will include many other stories much like those previously mentioned and many more. A panel discussion about how to deal with poverty in Shawnee is also on the schedule.