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The grinding reality of growing up poor

By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 30, 2010; 10:59 PM

When kids are poor, they are little adults, weighed down by a world of no.

And I'm not talking, "No, you can't have a new Spider-Man backpack," or, "No more princess shoes for you."

The no of poverty in kids' lives today means no new clothes, no bed, no sleeping past 5 a.m. or we won't have time to take three buses to get to your school, no telling the guard at the Metro station that we're sleeping there tonight, no after-school tutoring program designed just for you, because, the truth is, we can't afford to get you there and back every day.

This is the daily reality for thousands of our children, especially African American children growing up in the District.

We found out this week that three out of 10 children in the nation's capital were living in poverty last year. Thousands more were on the edge of poverty, which is defined as an income of $22,000 for a family of four, according to census figures. And the ranks of the desperate and near-desperate were growing in the suburbs as well.

In the District, there were about 7,000 more black children living in poverty last year than there were two years before. That's more than a third of the seating at Verizon Center.

Some people think that this kind of childhood wreaks greater havoc on a child than almost any Pat Conroy-child-abuse scenario.

"Poverty trumps mistreatment, absolutely," said Sheryl Brissett-Chapman, executive director of the National Center for Children and Families in Bethesda.

She explained that being extremely poor grinds down a child, that poverty gets into the brain and under the skin. Literally, actually.

Studies show that increased levels of cortisol, a chemical produced in the body as a result of stress, can seriously affect a child's brain development, stunting memory and disrupting learning patterns.

The stress of living in poverty gnaws at children. Poor kids who took part in one study were found to have elevated levels of cortisol in the morning. When the children showed up at a high-quality, small-group day-care center, where they bonded well with their teacher, the cortisol levels dropped. By afternoon, they were similar to the morning levels of their middle-class counterparts.

So, essentially, being poor costs a kid at least half a day in the classroom just to get the brain back to normal.

Alquanita Williams, 47, has been trying to survive while watching her 11-year-old son, Antonio, struggle as they moved from house to house, staying on friend's couches, trying to make ends meet. They finally got a spot at the D.C. General family shelter this summer. He was struggling so badly before that now, living in a shelter, he appears to be "blossoming," she said.

"Being here, being in one place, knowing we can get food," that actually makes a lot of difference, she said.

"We learned to live on giveaways. Clothes, food, anything you can find. We learned where the giveaways are, and that's how we've survived," Williams said. "We squeeze a quarter to make a dollar."

When you're poor, each quarter means something. Jamila Larson learned early on how the mechanics of a life in poverty shut so many doors for kids.

Larson, a social worker, took a girl she was mentoring to see "The Karate Kid." It was only the second time that 13-year-old had been to a movie. And she fell in love with karate.

So Larson sweet-talked an instructor in Georgetown to give the girl and her sister free lessons. Only problem was, they couldn't afford to get there.

So she tried again, at a Southeast Washington gym, closer to where the girls live. But that, too, was impossible because it still would have cost the girls $10 a day for travel and they would've had to wait until after dark for a bus ride home.

No, no and no.

"These kids know the family budget to the last dime," Larson said, and that constant, low-grade stress of viewing everything through the filter of poverty is hurting them.

Larson tried to find another way to open doors.

She founded something called the Homeless Children's Playtime Project, which brings playrooms, craft centers, libraries and organized activities right into the places that poor children are staying. Yes!

This month, she opened two rooms on the ground floor of the D.C. General family shelter: one sunshine yellow, with books and toys for toddlers; the other sky-blue, with board games and an art center for older kids. All the construction, decoration and supplies were donated. The people who run the centers are volunteers.

When I visited this space three months ago, before the playrooms opened, I saw kids outside at 11 at night, playing in broken glass and gravel in a dirty breezeway, holding open the door for grown-ups trudging home after a long trip on the bus.

This week, in the big-kid playroom sat George. He wears thick glasses and doesn't take off the nerdy shirt from his college-prep charter school, even after school. The 11-year-old wants to be an architect. And when he gets to school, he thrives as a student.

But getting there is a daily struggle, a miserable commute that can be made worse by lousy weather or an empty farecard. It makes his shoulders sag. It wears him down.

For a short time each day, when he's in that sky-blue playroom, his shoulders straighten. He plays a board game and draws. For him, childhood is lived in tiny, one-hour gulps, because he is poor.

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