On September 21, 2016, HealthLink celebrated its 15th Anniversary at Twining Hall in Feasterville in the company of over 100 friends - both old and new. One of the highlights of the evening were words from a HealthLink patient about the profound affect HealthLink has had on her during a difficult time in her life. You can read the full transcript here.
Tonight I want to tell you why HealthLink’s work is so important. I want to tell you why a visit to HealthLink is not just clean teeth for another six months, or a filled cavity. Those are very important, but, perhaps, even more important is HealthLink’s role in the hope that it gives for those of us who are striving as hard as we can to better ourselves and our families. Let me tell you part of my story—my journey from being a confident, bright, young mom with a middle-class upbringing to being immersed in poverty and inches from despair. As I tell my children, “Don’t worry, the story will have a happy ending.”
When I grew up in my middle class lifestyle; when I married an intelligent, young man; when we both went to graduate school; I thought we had a bright outlook in life. We were not daunted by the prospect of tight finances in graduate school; we were prepared to make sacrifices for our long-term goals. We had hope in our hearts.
Graduate school was challenging and anxiety ridden, but it was always hopeful. I learned some important things—and many things that I now realize were not quite so important as I thought they were at the time. But the chief lesson I learned was the importance of persevering through difficult situations, at which I discovered I was quite good.
Now, fast forward six years, three states, and a lot of education later. Shortly after the birth of our third child, we found ourselves underemployed, and, very quickly, staring poverty in the face. Yikes! I wasn’t planning on that. “Well,” I thought, “This will be difficult, but it’s nothing that a little perseverance can’t get us through.”
I was right; it was difficult. My husband, who had two master’s degrees, took a job at a fast-food restaurant. We figured he would work there for a couple of months until he got hired at a long-term job with a living wage, while I continued to take care of a baby, a two-year-old, and a five-year-old in half day kindergarten. We had no family in the area to watch the kids, so I couldn’t really work.
After several months, my husband didn’t land a living-wage job, so I pulled up my bootstraps and made myself a new schedule: Mondays, teach private art lessons with kids in tow, Tuesdays work as a Bible study nursery worker with kids in tow, Wednesday and Friday, visit the food pantry with kids in tow; and we were stuck at home every afternoon for naptime, during which did my domestic chores and figured out how we were going to keep going if my husband’s $9/hr job continued. Things were hard. I was becoming exhausted, as if taking care of the needs of three young children weren’t exhausting enough without the added jobs and stress of providing the for most basic necessities of life.
What they don’t tell you about living in poverty, and what I never guessed, is that poverty is utterly demoralizing. You can’t just pull up your bootstraps and tighten your belt. It takes more than just perseverance. It’s demoralizing. My husband’s inability to find a job in his field or even a better paying job outside of the restaurant industry for two years was a punch in the gut. Not only could he not work in an industry that took used of his gifts and training, but he couldn’t even earn enough money in any field that would hire him. Disappointment lead to frustration and melancholy. The irregular work shifts and work days of the restraint industry eroded at his emotional equilibrium. The shame of not being able to provide for his family drove him to despair. Between my husband’s despair, his irregular schedule, three small needy children, the ensuing exhaustion, the emotional isolation resulting from lack of time for friendships, and to top it off, the bleakness and the bone-chilling cold of winter, depression became a daily battle. We were young, and bright, and educated, and yet, we were in the slough of desponding poverty.
Imagine: you are at the lowest point of your life. You can’t even afford your housing. There is no sign of any of it getting better anytime soon . . . and then your tooth starts to hurt. At this point you have no emotional reserve to even pursue getting help for yourself, and the very idea of spending money makes you laugh. That’s where I was when my tooth started to hurt. What is one to do? I was fortunate. I remembered an individual amongst my acquaintances who was associated with HealthLink. I made inquiries: “Oh, a financial aid process?” What a mix of feelings that brought; I had dealt with countless financial aid processes during our two years of underemployment, which usually involved countless lost documents and the inability to communicate statements or even questions directly to a human being. On a continuum of personability, financial aid processes usually land on the “completely impersonal” end of the spectrum.
Desperate, I hopped on the internet, and called the number listed on HealthLink’s website. I did have to leave a message, but the voicemail box was NOT full—usually financial aid voice mail boxes are full, and you can’t leave a message. Not only could I leave a message, but I received a call back from a very pleasant and well-mannered member of the HealthLink staff. In fact, the entire financial aid process was personable and smooth. It reminded me why, in fact, I do appreciate the financial aid process—it ensures that the right people are getting the right assistance.
I went into my appointment with a bit more confidence. So far my experience with HealthLink had been a good one. When I sat down in the chair to get my teeth clean, I was treated to a very chatty hygienist who, within minutes, gave me a dose of wholesome friendship. I had hoped merely for a pleasant hygienist and clean teeth and, instead, came away with these and the added bonuses of respect and of a feeling of camaraderie. My poor, friendship starved soul and penniless pockets could have cried for joy. Each time I came back to HealthLink, I was treated the same way. The dentists who treated me conveyed not just professionalism but a respectful compassion that doled out hope into my heart.
You see, when a person in genuine financial distress reaches out to accept the offer of free dental services or any other services, they extend a wounded hand. Everyone’s story is different, but I think most of us who have experienced poverty have been through some type of emotional trauma. The experience of being treated with respectful compassion, as an equal, brings fortitude. The privilege of connecting with people who have hope is a balm to the soul, because hope soothes the souls it touches. Hope is one of many salves that help to mend a heart broken from poverty and despair. An easy and successful journey through the financial process and the receipt of treatment for an ailment in the mouth brings not just a repaired tooth, but a step towards rebuilding hope. To the individual in poverty who lives with repeated disappointments, a repaired tooth engenders this mind-set: sometimes things do work out. Sometimes it’s worth it to keep trying. Sometimes trying results in success.
Now about the happy ending to my story. Happy endings are a journey, and I am happy to report that my husband finally has a job earning nearly a living wage. My children, 4, 6, and 9 are none the worse for their past trips to the local food pantry to get “surprise” bags, as I called the free handouts in an effort to make life fun little kids. In fact the kids were thriving and running around in the yard dumping water on each other when I wrote up my notes for tonight. And, I have hope again. I am confident that my family will finish climbing out of its difficulties. And perhaps most important of all, I have learned about compassion at a visceral level, and THAT is more important than anything I ever learned in graduate school. So thank you to you and others who have been a part of my journey back to hope and who have enabled me to share the lessons I have learned. Please continue to be a part of shaping lives; please continue putting hope into the lives of others.