WALLA WALLA -- On Wednesday evening, a group of cross-country bicycling activists, church parishioners and community service leaders met to discuss local poverty issues.
Tim Meliah, director of Walla Walla Catholic Charities, organized the event that drew on the publicity of the Cycling for Change group, saying "We really hope it will work to raise awareness about poverty here locally."
For one of the riders, the subject matter of the forum struck a personal chord.
"I don't pretend to have lived in poverty, but I've dug dirt and I've carried water, and I think that doing this is the most important thing we can do for America," said John Stigers, fighting back tears as he spoke before the 30-or-so seated guests who occupied St. Patrick's cafeteria.
Stigers later explained that growing up his family had "dug dirt" as subsistence farmers and "carried water" from outdoor wells with buckets, into his dirt-floored farmstead in Missouri.
"You don't realize you're living in poverty when everyone else around you is poor," said Stigers with watery eyes following the discussion.
According to the three speakers at the forum Stiger's story unfortunately resonates with the experiences of many here in Walla Walla,
Holly Howard, who represented the Lincoln Health Center, a free clinic for students of Lincoln Alternative High School, said there is a tremendous need for student health care on her campus.
"There are approximately 300 students coming and going at Lincoln alternative High School and we have seen approximately 70 percent of them," she said.
Without the clinic, many of the students would simply let minor medical issues develop into larger, more expensive problems that cost taxpayers down the line, she said.
"Most of the people do not have a doctor for primary care and most of them use the emergency room as their primary care provider," Howard said, a process she described as "inefficient."
While the program has given Lincoln students access to health care, Howard says the program needs to be replicated in other schools throughout the School District, especially Blue Ridge where 92 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunches, a rate that is markedly higher than the other schools in the district, which has an overall average of 54 percent.
Dr. Bart Moore of SOS Clinic echoed Howard's statements, saying that the clinic served more than 4,000 people over the last year, providing $150,000 worth of primary medical care that would have translated into $500,000 in emergency room costs, if the patients had not been able to find primary care elsewhere.
Moore added another dimension to issues of poverty, opening his speech with an anecdote about serving a man who pulled up to the clinic in a luxury car a few days before, "he was telling me that after he just finished paying off that car he got laid off and ended up losing his house, his $600,000 house ... he had diabetes and couldn't afford the co-pay on his insurance ... so we're seeing more and more this kind of person at SOS Clinic".
Meliah also indicated the economy had increased the number of cases handled by Catholic Charities, especially with regard to psychiatric care. Meliah said more and more people are turning to services like Catholic Charities to provide counseling services as they cope with the stress of unemployment and economic hardship. Meliah also identified homelessness as a growing problem in the community.
Noah Leavitt of the Walla Walla Asset Building Coalition said Wednesday's event reflects the increasing role of church-based charity organizations in providing services in the midst of economic decline and cuts in social services.
"Over the last couple years there's been an increased focus and thoughtful engagement of the church community in addressing economic problems ... in part it's because of the increased engagement of the faith community in a time when it's needed," he said.
Omar Ihmoda can be reached at email@example.com.
More On Poverty
More information and statistics about poverty in Walla Walla County: www.walla2regvitalsigns.ewu.edu/flexFront/