Jason Willis believes there is a general misconception about the severity of poverty in Floyd County, where some may cut the issue down to individuals making “bad choices.” But really poverty is the fact of individuals having “no choices,” he said.
“We’re here to be a hand up, not a handout,” said Willis, the regional director for the Northwest Region of Action Ministries, a statewide nonprofit. “Poverty is real. People’s perception is a lot of the time wrong.”
According to 2015 statistics compiled by the Floyd County Kids Count Data Center, 21 percent of adults in the county live in severe poverty and one in three kids live in poverty.
Also, the center’s data reflects that 60 percent of kids in the county live in low-income households. And with a single parent in the Rome metro area working full time having an average monthly income of $1,256, an income gap of $1,735 presents itself — the average monthly cost of living for a parent with one child in Rome is $2,991.
To solve this “crisis,” Willis said Action Ministries predominately focuses on three areas of need: housing, hunger relief and education.
In 2016, Action Ministries Northwest re-housed eight homeless families in rental homes, distributed 33,000 Backpack Buddies, and handed out 4,450 age-appropriate children’s books for kids to take home.
However, the nonprofit is reaching beyond those feats this year to expand its reach in beating back poverty, Willis said.
Action Ministries Northwest has delivered 6,000 books to 17 sites across the county since the school year ended as part of its Smart Kid program, which also has an after-school portion for kids pre-K to fifth grade. Of the county’s kids in poverty, one out of every 300 has access to age-appropriate books that they can actually read, he added.
To explain the connection between education and poverty, Willis relayed that the Georgia Department of Corrections allocates how many beds it needs 10 years down the road by looking at third-grade literacy level statewide.
By bumping up the number of books, which are provided by the Georgia Department of Education, kids have a wider selection they can choose from, increasing the likelihood of them actually picking up the book and reading, Willis said.
But in furthering the educational component, Willis has brought in community members to read to kids. On Friday, attorneys Lint Johnson and Chris Jackson — both with the law firm McRae, Smith, Peek, Harman & Monroe — visited the Swan Lake Mobile Home Community, where they sat before a group of about a dozen kids and shared a story.
Willis hopes doing more of this will show the youth in poverty that there are those in the community who care for them, and inversely, those who come to read get a first-hand look at the needs of their community.
“Kids go home to nothing,” Willis said of the food insecurity kids face during weekends.
Free and reduced lunch prices at schools are essential to kids getting proper nutrition, with 59 percent of them taking advantage of the food assistance. To provide food during the weekends, Backpack Buddies are filled with at least two items each of protein, fruit, breakfast food and snacks. The grocery sacks are distributed to over 20 sites in the county.
For $50 Action Ministries Northwest can feed one kid on weekends over the summer, and for $250 it can stave of food insecurity on the weekends for a whole year.
Increasing awareness of the breadth of poverty locally is a big step forward, Willis said, because “who doesn’t want to feed kids.”
Those wishing to donate food, read to kids, help pack Backpack Buddies or ask a question can contact Willis by email at email@example.com. The office of Action Ministries Northwest is located at 206 E. Second St. here in Rome.