stamp-114353_640I have been unemployed for over a year.  It hasn’t been because I haven’t tried all the best (and some of the not best) ways of obtaining a job.  The economy sucks.  And as a nonprofit professional, it is even worse!  I have 3 children and an ex-husband who has been unemployed and doesn’t feel any obligation to pay any child support.  So the past year has been a little rough.  However, we are a lucky family because we have a very big and strong safety net.  My father and brothers have told me from the beginning that they will provide as much financial support as we need.  It is pretty extraordinary that they are so generous and I appreciate the profound difference this makes in our lives.

It is within this framework of support that we have experienced this past year.  It has been challenging, but certainly not at the level that most low income families experience.  As the school year approaches, the challenges that summer seems to eliminate come back fully into focus.  This week, we had to begin navigating the system again as a low-income family, without anything nearly sufficient in terms of support or guidance.  Just purchasing school books for the year is full of complicated requirements.  We received no reminder that we needed to reapply for free books.  So when I brought my two teens to the school for some scheduling issues, I happened to remember to go into the appropriate office and ask what we needed to do.  My kids were supposed to buy books the next day, so we took the forms and worked on assembling the required documents.  However, we were not able to finish everything that was needed by the end of the day.  The next morning I went to school early to drop everything off.  While there, I was told about documents they would need that were not listed on the form.  So I went home and assembled those documents, some of which needed printing.  Of course being a low-income family, technology is a struggle.  Our five-year-old desktop computer can no longer print for some reason.  (Who can afford tech support or a new computer?)  And the laptop my brother bought me usually works, but this morning the printer was not responding at first.  Eventually I got it to work, but it did take a long time.  As I sat waiting for the school to approve our request for free books I was overwhelmed with frustration.  Ultimately, they didn’t have enough time to approve our application before the bookstore closed.  We have qualified for free books every year we have applied.  I would guess with less income this year, we will qualify again.  Of course, we didn’t know about it when my older son was in high school.  They don’t really advertise.  You just have to know to ask the right questions.  Cool, right!?!?

I tell you all of this NOT because I want your pity.  On the contrary.  We as a family feel extraordinary gratitude for all we have.  We know that we are doing so much better than most of the world and even much of the United States.  My point is that, if it is this complicated, frustrating and time consuming for me, a woman with a master’s degree, no significant worries about keeping my house and feeding my kids, what must it be like for the truly low income families?  What about homes where English is a second language?  What about families where parents work two and three jobs and kids are attempting the task of applying for free books on their own?  What about homes where there is a profoundly disabled or severely sick family member?  How are they, with fewer tools, less support and far more desperate situations, supposed to navigate a system that is pushing me very quickly to the point of wanting to give up?

We, the low-income families in the United States, are already stressed and tired and overworked.  Many of us are functioning with less sleep, less opportunity for stress relief, less support systems and with some real handicaps.  Until my brother bought me a laptop computer, printing was a real challenge at my house.  My kids would have to go to the public library and pay for copies or go to school early to print there.  When my kids are required to do projects for school they do not have access to so many of the technological tools that many of their peers have.  If asked to create a video of some sort, they are required to work within the constraints of what the school can provide.

Truthfully, much of this has been very positive for my kids.  They have an appreciation for their lives and an understanding of the reality of socio-economic status in the world.  They are pretty independent compared to others their age.  But we are NOT the typical low-income family.  I gotta believe we are really doing a profound disservice to the families who are more typical.  But nobody is asking the right questions to find out how to make the system better.  Nobody is trying to find out how to accommodate the lives of low-income families to bring those kids to the same starting point as the higher-level income families.  Kids shouldn’t be penalized because their parents make less money.  But that is EXACTLY what our system does right now.  If you don’t think this is so, just consider the education and opportunities my children get compared to those in low-income communities.  We are benefiting from living in a higher income community, which is just not available to so much of our population.

It is time for our schools, governments and entire communities to start talking with AND mostly LISTENING to our low income citizens and finding out what they might need to make life just a little bit easier…to allow their children to get the most out of their school years.  Ultimately, the changes we make will benefit the entire country, as our children, all of them, will be better able to learn and ultimately better equipped to function in the community as adults.

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About a year ago, my virtual friend (not virtual pretend, but virtual, we connected on LinkedIn and until recently, had never met) Chris Jarvis told me to read The Tipping Point. I had heard of the book but didn’t know much about it.  Chris told me I was a connector as described in the book.  Little did I know how right he was.

I don’t know if it is genetic or if connectors are created.  But I do know that I just LOVE connecting.  I have always been a connector for as long as I can remember.  With the advent of new/social media like Twitter, the networking game has been taken to an entirely new playing field.  For me, it is about connecting with people who teach me new things, inspire me to do more and who open my mind to a world I might otherwise not know about.

All of this virtual connecting is allowing me to create some very interesting relationships with people with whom I might never have crossed paths if not for social media.  I have developed incredibly close ties with people who I have never met in real life.  Many of these relationships are as important to me as those with my very best friends.  I know that this may sound quite odd, especially for those who are not familiar with social media.  It sounds a bit crazy to me too!

Recently, I had the opportunity to turn several of those virtual relationships into real life encounters.  The Cause Marketing Forum was in Chicago.  I am not a cause marketing person (don’t even play one on tv) and like many conferences, this one was a little pricey for a non-marketing just hung out the shingle nonprofit consultant.  Several of my virtual friends were in town for the conference. Fortunately, one of these friends suggested I come downtown at the end of the conference to meet with her.  Without that invitation, I probably would not have had the nerve to “crash the party.”

I really enjoyed reconnecting with some Chicagoans and meeting great Twitter friends in person that day.  I have found that meeting people in real life has a profound impact on the depth of the relationship.  But honestly, meeting Chris Jarvis, who has felt like a dear friend for the past year since we first connected virtually, made the entire afternoon surreal.  It seems as though Chris and I have been friends forever.  To speak with him in person for the first time just didn’t make sense.  I literally could not wrap my brain around the experience.

Just recently, “Social Media Today” posted a piece on their blog titled, “Social networks are redefining what a friend or a relationship really is.”  In this post, it was suggested that words like friend may become less meaningful as it becomes easier and easier to vastly expand our networks.  However, I would hate to casually dismiss my virtual relationships with people as not “real” just because we met online.  These networking methods really are just tools that facilitate creating wonderful relationships with people.  Ultimately some become equally meaningful to those relationships I establish through more traditional methods.  I met Chris on LinkedIn. We only met in real life after an entire year of engaging online. But my friendship with him is one I treasure and is certainly of equal value to those in my non-virtual world.

So, if you are one of those people who is resisting trying out some of these new tools, I dare say you are missing out.  I can’t imagine my life right now without the incredible relationships I have gained through social media.  It’s difficult for me to envision trudging through this past year of unemployment without that important community!  So thank you to my new friends of this new world.  You know who you are, but perhaps not how much I value your friendship!

(Be sure to check out this new blog on CNN.com called Netiquette that will help us figure out networking etiquette. )

*Thanks to Bonnie Koenig (another GREAT relationship in my network) for inspiring the title.