I didn’t know her name or even if the voice yelling outside my open window was directed at me. My attention was on the screen in front of me two Thursdays ago.
“Hello! Hello!” she frantically yelled out, trying to get my attention. “Are you open today and do you have any food left?” she asked as I walked over to my window and looked out. With a look of desperation, she explained that she was a senior and her family had missed the food distribution. They were hungry and had nothing to eat.
COVID-19 hit North St. Louis County especially hard and it has not let up since it began. From the outset, thousands of low-income families who already had a difficult time making ends meet quickly found themselves without jobs or income. There was no food. No money to pay utilities and rent, and government assistance was still several weeks away. Adding insult to injury, COVID-19 cases were rising disproportionately in the North County area.
Beyond Housing and our nonprofit partners had been, and still are, working to provide emergency relief including rent and utility assistance and drive-thru food and supply distributions. We were preparing for an upcoming Saturday food distribution when I heard Rosa’s voice outside my opened office window.
I tried to calm and reassure her. I asked her where she lived and if she had a car. She said she lived just around the corner but did not have a car. My first instinct was to get a box of food and drive her back home, but with all the COVID-19 worries I instead asked for her name and address. I told her I would deliver some food in a few minutes and that from here on we would deliver food to her home.
I went to the gymnasium of the former Garfield Elementary School in Pine Lawn—which had been renovated to become Beyond Housing’s headquarters—and grabbed one of the hundreds of boxes filled with meals that were being stored for more upcoming food distributions. I drove to her home and placed the box on her porch. As I drove the short two blocks back to the office, I saw her walking toward her home with a pronounced limp. I rolled down my window and told her the box was on her porch.
She was grateful and relieved. I told her that we are here for her and everyone else in the community and told her to take care.
The image of Rosa sticks in my mind. This desperate senior with nowhere else to turn to was in such great need that she forced herself to yell for help to a stranger through an open window.
In that moment, I had a choice: to respond and help her, or to brush her off. I chose to help. It did not require any great sacrifice on my part. I chose to take literally ten minutes out of my life to lend a hand to someone in need.
Rosa got my attention that day. She should get everyone else’s attention too. There are way too many people in our region in Rosa’s shoes. They are hardworking fellow St. Louisans who are doing everything they can to make ends meet under more difficult circumstances than most of us will ever have to endure. There are too many communities in our region where people like Rosa live well below the poverty line.
We know what the data says about our regional inequity. It is not a newsflash. We know the divides and the problems that stem from those divisions and how it is hurting all of us. Our regional state of decline is in large part due to our inability to muster the collective courage to address the hard stuff of poverty and what it brings to families and communities.
We’ve heard this. We know this. The wakeup call has been ringing for decades and it is plain as day. What we don’t know is when are we going to respond? When are we going to come together and harness the courage and resources to turn our most challenging communities around in order to make St. Louis the best it can be?
In life we have choices about who we want to be as individuals and what type of community we want to live in. We can make the choice to look inward and take care of ourselves and not worry about what is beyond our life circumstances. Or we can balance caring for ourselves and our loved ones and looking outward at the community we live in.
The reality is that if we don’t pay attention to the world around us, it will invariably change into something that will impact our own existence. And it should be obvious in just how much it has.
I don’t know what the ultimate wakeup call will be that finally galvanizes us to address the longstanding issues that not only hold people like Rosa back but our entire region as well.
All I know is, we’d all be better off if we answered it.