By Lauren Leising
For me, the New Year is one of my favorite times of year. Family comes to town, cold weather makes for evenings spent in front of a fire and hours are dedicated to coming up with bucket lists and planning future vacations. This season is jam-packed with holidays and most people look forward to taking time to unwind and enjoy the comforts of home. But for so many others, this time of year is one of the hardest. Finances grow tighter, stress levels rise and many families are unable to provide for themselves and their loved ones. For those experiencing poverty and homelessness, the holidays are a reminder of their situation and often leave them feeling hopeless and alone.
We’ve all seen poverty and homelessness at some point, usually in a news story briefly discussing some dry statistics that really left no impact. Or maybe it was in one of the movies that tend to pop up around the holiday season and try to tug at our heartstrings. What many people don’t realize is that those in need can be found right outside their own door. We often forget the reality and severity of poverty. According to surveys conducted by the University of Georgia, over 26,300 people live in poverty in Athens-Clarke County, taking the poverty rate over 28%, which is twice the national poverty rate.
Think about that for a minute. Not just as a statistic but also as a real situation affecting people like us. Keep in mind that those statistics are people.
When you begin to realize the weight of the poverty issues facing thousands around the nation and in your very own city, it is only natural to become unsettled and wonder what can be done.
With the goal of making a change in their community, many churches, organizations and student groups have worked to provide for those in need through food, clothing, shelter and meaningful friendships.
The Food Bank of North East Georgia is the largest distributer of food in this area. According to Jennifer Dunlop, the food bank’s marketing & development director, the food bank partners with over 226 agencies around North East Georgia in 14 counties to provide food to the community in need. Through these agencies, including the Bigger Vision Shelter in Athens and the Food to Kids program, the food bank has helped to provide millions of pounds of food every year to people who need it most. As a result of the number of groups willing to help, it has become easier to provide for those in need in our community.
Another group, made up of mostly students, is Athens PBJs, which strives to impact the homeless around the city through friendships and quality time spent encouraging and listening to each other. John Braucher, a fourth year English and cellular biology major from Athens explained that the group’s main focus is to fellowship with the homeless and to truly engage with them in a way that builds them up. “It’s about building friendships,” he said, “and friendships are hard.” The team encourages students and members of the community to spend time getting to know the people who are in need in the area in the same way they would get to know a new friend.
Often times, what someone who is homeless longs for most is to know that someone cares about them personally and loves them, a desire that is felt by everyone throughout life. It is easy to simply walk by those living on the streets and feel that twinge of sadness at their condition but to continue on your way because you think you have nothing to offer.
In reality, we all have something of immeasurable importance to give. Our time. Stopping to talk with someone you see can make a world of difference and remind him or her that someone cares. If you take the time to listen, you will find that they have a great deal more to say than you think and usually are more than willing to talk and just enjoy having company. This is what Athens PBJs emphasizes. Breaking down the walls to create real, strong friendships built on genuine love.
All of the groups that work with the less fortunate will say the same thing: give your time. As college kids, we often think that because expenses are tight that we can’t make a difference. But, as young people, we are blessed with a great deal of time that we can spend helping and investing in others. There are countless ways to get involved! All it takes is a little looking.
As the New Year rolls around, take some time to notice those around you and their needs. Every little thing helps, whether it is providing someone with a meal, volunteering or just taking a minute to stop and talk to them. One of the greatest things you can give someone is your time to listen to them and their story. Just a few minutes of conversation can brighten another person’s day in a way you can’t even imagine. It may surprise you what they have to say. Make it your goal this year to intentionally seek ways to be the change you want to see. After all, what better time for change than now?