I met her less than a year ago. Quiet, withdrawn, and clearly uncomfortable in her own skin, I instantly knew I wanted to be her friend. It was because of a special occasion that my non-profit, which is disguised as a chic urban store, was recommended to this high school senior. I had been told she had an IEP, but upon meeting her, other than a bit of social-awkwardness, I saw no sign of any special needs at all.
All sorts of girls have come through my little makeshift shop. Considered poor and underprivileged by society’s standards, few of them have experienced the benefit of knowing both parents. They’ve been bullied, carted from one foster home to another, and yet they fight for the same thing we all do….to find meaning in life. While I offer them free trendy clothing, which amounts to an opportunity to fit in, what I want most is to leave an imprint in their lives. I want them to know that someone “sees” them, and that they are highly valued.
I found Hallie-Belle to be rather ordinary on that fateful day of our first meeting; nothing at all stood out about her other than she was gangly and wore glasses that precariously balanced upon the tip of her nose. In fact, I don’t remember her saying more than a few words, but I do vividly recall how her face lit up when she saw the dress I had chosen for her. I insisted that she try it on, of course, more for my own curiosity than for her benefit. Floating from the dressing area, the teenage girl’s feet belied her, or so it seemed. Hallie-Belle had entered the dressing area as an invisible girl, but had exited as a princess. Her shoulders appeared straighter, her head a bit taller, and I could’ve sworn I saw the crack of a grin. It’s a moment I’ve witnessed many times and never grow tired of.
I packed her dress along with a few other items and sent her on her way, determined to stay in touch. To become her friend. For a reason I cannot describe, a piece of my heart now belonged to this auburn haired girl with skin as fair as the moon. True to my word, I worked to have a relationship with Hallie-Belle. We followed one another on social media, and anytime I could include her in an event, I did. Over time, I learned about her pets, her family, and all of her favorite things. I got to hear her giggle, watch her become more confident, and listen to her wish of one day having a boyfriend.
As she dreamed, I found myself dreaming right along with her. Dreaming for her. I envisioned her overcoming the stereo-typical brand and finding a job, attending a local private school for adults who have learning differences, and stepping out of her comfort zone to build relationships with adults her own age. The more she dreamed, the more I dreamed….until eventually, I was determined to make those dreams come true. But that is where the road blocks came in to play, road blocks that were unfamiliar to me, a female who has never had to worry about money.
Hallie-Belle, in contrast to my brick house that sits in a safe, desirable neighborhood, lives in a small single wide trailer at the end of a non-descript gravel road. Ten people and five dogs are residing in her home right now. Food, gas money, and transportation are a constant concern. Her parents are doing the best they can, but they are forever behind the proverbial eight ball, filled with panic each month as bills come due. To make matters worse, because Hallie-Belle is so high functioning, she has been labeled as “employable”, which means she does not qualify for government benefits….but she will never be able to drive due to some of her limitations, which means she will always be reliant on others for transportation. And transportation is a constant issue with her family as I mentioned earlier, remember? Add this to the fact that she has special needs that present when she’s put in social situations, and the type of job that would actually work for her becomes limited…especially considering she will have no college degree. Hallie-Belle’s case is a complicated one, which is unfortunate since the system is set up to check off boxes…boxes which she doesn’t neatly fit into.
For months, I have been trying to find a solution. She remains all day, every day, in that single wide trailer waiting on me to find a solution. Trusting me to help, because I assured her I would. In my quest, I have made countless phone calls and have talked to so many people. The answer I get frequently is that this, though unfortunate and sad, is her ‘lot in life’. What the heck does that even mean? ‘Lot in life’???? God help us as a society if that is how we all begin to think and feel.
As I was sharing Hallie-Belle’s story with an acquaintance recently, the person sat back and said very matter-of-factly: “It sounds like you have become a Socialist.” Now this person is a staunch conservative, and so that comment was not a compliment, but given as more of a warning, eyebrows raised and all.
I think I gasped. Knowing me and my compunction for drama, I likely did, but I didn’t let the comment go without exploring more.
“A Socialist, really?” I asked, honestly wanting to know.
This person smiled at me, gave a few nods of the head, and explained: “Anytime you expect the government or tax paying citizens to help keep a family going, you are promoting the ideals of Socialism. If you want to really help a person survive, you don’t give them a fish that will feed their family for a day or two….instead, you give them a fishing pole and you teach them how to fish so they can eat for a lifetime. In Hallie-Belle’s case, the parents just need to be told what steps to take so they can get up on their feet. In the end, it’s their job to choose to follow through. You can’t force a person to fish.”
What Hallie-Belle’s situation had to do with fishing, I still do not know, but I couldn’t resist, so I followed with:
“So would you say this is her ‘lot in life’?”
And you can guess what the answer to my question was. If I hadn’t cared so much about not crumbling my darned chicken and biscuits, I might have slapped this person silly with my Hardee’s bag. (I don’t treat myself to chicken and biscuits very often, so don’t judge me too harshly).
What I’ve learned from the last several months of walking life with Hallie-Belle and other girls like her is that I don’t care if I’m labeled a Socialist. Labels, to me, mean nothing, because I know what I believe. And in this case, Hallie-Belle is entitled to reliable transportation. She is entitled to a job where she can earn fair wages. She is entitled to use her earned wages to attend a school where she will be taught to live as independently as possible and where she will form relationships. Is this not life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? What we all believe we are entitled to? If so, why should the fact that Hallie-Belle was born into poverty with a minor disability hold her back? It shouldn’t.