Poverty lives in Meridian, but hope is next door

By Madeline Carino
Meridian Times staff writer

Nelinda Cole married a good guy. They had a strong relationship, a beautiful son and appeared to be a typical family. He had a steady job and could provide for her and their child. They were happy.

But it didn’t last.

Three years into their marriage, he became hooked on heroin. He was in a constant cycle of using, quitting, rehabilitating and relapsing.

In 2004 when they lived in Detroit, Nelinda received a call from the police just before she left work. The police instructed her to come to the station because her husband was caught overdosed with her 4-year-old son in the car. By the time Nelinda could make it to the police station, her son had already been assigned into foster care. Nelinda had to wait almost a month before reuniting with her son. She wept every day they were apart.

Her husband had chosen a relationship with drugs instead of his family. The reliable, good guy that Nelinda once married was gone and an abusive heroin addict had replaced him. Nelinda found herself married to a stranger.

On March 1, 2010 everything changed.

He had had enough of this family. He said he was leaving and he was taking the used van Nelinda had just bought for them. Panicked, Nelinda raced down the apartment stairs to try and stop him from taking one of the family’s most valuable possessions. The van was their only source of transportation. She begged him not to take it and reached for the keys. He responded with his fists. He fought Nelinda off, hitting her repeatedly, even in the face. Nelinda screamed for someone to call the police.

By the time the police arrived, he was gone. He took their van and left her with her now 10-year-old son and his siblings. Despite the pain, nothing was worse than facing her little boy waiting for her back in the apartment. This wasn’t the first time her husband had beaten her.

“Mom…what happened to your face?” asked her son.

That question brought tears to her eyes. Nelinda couldn’t bear to have her son see her like that anymore, especially at the expense of his father. From that moment on, Nelinda decided that she was done with her husband. She immediately separated from him, and refused to let him back into their life when he returned. Nelinda divorced him in 2012.

Everything Nelinda does is for her children. Nelinda’s parents passed away 10 years ago and the rest of her family is distant. To her children, Nelinda is all they have.
To support them, Nelinda is working as a housekeeper and plans to start taking classes to earn a degree.

Basic Needs Graphic-5 copy

As hard as she worked, there were months where she was unable to fully support her family. Nelinda is one of the 26.7 percent of single-mothered families in Meridian Township whose income is below the poverty level.
Luckily, there are resources available to help Nelinda and other families in similar situations.

Feeding Hope

The Okemos Food Bank is in the Okemos Community Church. Meals include the essentials: fruits, vegetables, protein and other non-perishable items. Food packages can serve a family from three to five days.

Nelinda first used the Food Bank after the incident in 2010. She was fortunate to recover her van, however, it needed work. She had to pay more than $200 to retrieve the van from impound, it was missing a bumper and had a flat tire. After paying for the repairs, Nelinda needed help to feed her children.

Food Bank representative Cindy Langdon can tell immediately when people use the Food Bank for the first time. These people, with struggle painted on their faces, won’t be able to say a word.

Meridian Map with images

“At that point you look at them and you give them a hug first,” said Langdon.

Sometimes, the Food Bank is the last resort. Families never thought they would be in this situation where they could not afford to feed themselves or the rest of their family. Langdon vows that as long as she’s breathing, she will continue to help feed others.

One couple was almost to the point where they could independently support themselves. Unfortunately, their independence slipped away when their daughter became severely ill. After bringing his daughter home from the emergency room, the father went to Meijer to pick up her prescription. He had $40, but the prescription cost more than $100. The father went to Langdon for help.

The church used the Pastor’s Discretionary Funds to help pay for the child’s prescription. When Langdon went to the pharmacist, she couldn’t believe what he said next.

“(The family) most likely didn’t have very good insurance, if this were my child, he would still be in the Emergency Room. We need to get medicine into that child today,” said the pharmacist.

With the help of the Food Bank, the father took the vital medicine to his daughter who made a full recovery. The Food Bank doesn’t just feed people, it saves lives.

A Community Effort

Aside from the Food Bank, other programs such as the Weekend Backpack Program and the Summer Playground Program are present specifically for feeding children.

During the school year, the Weekend Backpack Program gives children a weekend’s worth of food every other Friday. Dave Muhleck revived this program in 2009 with the Haslett-Okemos Rotary Club and the Okemos Kiwanis. Muhleck said the program “is a true community project”. All the money spent on food is raised from community donations and is assembled by Rotary and Kiwanis members, school volunteers, and even corporate volunteers like Jackson National Life and Kohl’s. Food is stored and assembled in the Okemos Community Church.

The Summer Playground Program feeds children two meals Monday through Thursday in between school years at Central Elementary. Okemos does not qualify for federally funded meals, so instead of doing nothing, Meridian Township has developed a creative partnership between the church, the school district and the community. Program Director Elizabeth Clifford said this is critical because there is no other source of food during the summer.

“To have (the children) be without food assistance for three months could really be devastating,” said Clifford.

The Food Bank works closely with other community agencies such as the Salvation Army, St. Vincent DePaul and the Community Resources Commission (CRC). In 2013, the commission and the Food Bank made over 600 food baskets for the hungry during Thanksgiving and winter holidays.

The CRC is a Meridian Township commission responsible for the CRC Emergency Needs Fund. This fund is used to assist people in financial crisis situations relating to utility shutoffs, medical expenses and evictions.

Emergency Needs

Meridian Township is one of the few places in Michigan that has a program that gives direct financial services to individuals. Most cities have programs that fund agencies, and then the agencies assist people. The CRC helps Meridian residents directly by supplying payments or referring them to community agencies like Capital Area Community Services and Christian Services.

Human Services Specialist Darla Jackson said that 90 percent of the time she refers people to other agencies. This is mainly because people make requests that these agencies can cater to specifically or because they are requesting more than $200. If a client requests funds less than $200 than the CRC Needs Fund can make payments after the request has been approved by the majority of commission members.

CRC Needs Graph

On Saturday, August 24 2013, the commission hosted its annual GolfFest at Meridian Sun to help raise funds for the Emergency Needs Fund. Last year, GolfFest raised about $6,300. This is a community tradition where Meridian residents celebrate the end of summer with prizes and raffles.

Over the past few years, the Emergency Needs Fund has dwindled because of higher demands. In 2008, the Needs Fund served 40 households. In 2012, the Needs Fund served 72 households, almost doubling the number from four years before. In response, the commission hosted it’s first Strike Out for a Cause fundraiser in March. The event raised $1,132. Jackson anticipates the commission will host this fundraiser again in the future.

Meridian Township has some affluent people. However, poverty still exists and the need for financial assistance has grown since 2008. The community has banded together to initiate, revive and to maintain vital programs for those in need. Parents like Nelinda Cole rely heavily on resources like the Food Bank and the Community Resources Commission.

Today, Nelinda continues to work for her independence. She relied on the Food Bank for about five years, but has been able to solely feed her family for the past 12 months. Without these resources, Nelinda would have struggled even more to support her children. She cannot express how thankful she is for these resources and recommends them to others.

This info graphic depicts the financial need in Meridian Township.

This info graphic depicts the financial need in Meridian Township.

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