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Steve Gander: Working to fight poverty locally

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A recent American president said, "The most terrifying words in the English language are: 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.' "

Why would a president say such a thing? I think it's because the federal government at its best takes care of things like national defense, commerce, the coining of currency, the federal highway system and providing a basic social safety net.

Government at its worst takes people's money, runs it through an expensive bureaucratic system, and spends what remains on priorities that the people may not share.

There are good people at all levels of government engaged in the war on poverty. And they're making a difference. But there is a limit to what they can accomplish. Bring in the generosity and ingenuity of the American people and the possibilities are limitless.

One of the first things that needs to happen is for us to look past the word "poverty" to what lies behind it. The first thing you see looking back at you is people—sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas.

Someone has high hopes and dreams for these people. Someone loves them. Someone grieves for them in their financial difficulty. I know it's true, because that someone is me. I believe that someone is also you.

Another thing behind the word poverty is unforeseen circumstances. One of the best remnants of the flood of 1997 for me is the memory of being financially devastated, physically and emotionally wiped out, and humbly accepting help from people I knew I would never meet and could never repay.

Another thing hanging out behind poverty is lack of education. When I was in Brazil some years ago on a Rotary International service trip, they told us one of the greatest challenges they have in their national economy is that families pull their children out of school at age 13-15 and put them into the workforce. This assures the family will be stuck in that economic rut indefinitely.

Too many young people here in America miss out on the education necessary to excel.

Behind much of poverty is addiction. Between the direct cost of purchasing the addictive substance and the indirect costs of work absenteeism, job loss, and family destruction, addiction is a financial train wreck.

Also behind the word poverty is discouragement. People have made an honest effort to achieve something, and have so far not been able to do it. In cases like this, it's easy to lose hope.

Behind poverty you'll find unresolved medical and mental health issues. People have had to make the painful choice between eating and receiving help with these problems, and so their health suffers.

Finally, behind the word poverty is a lot of hard work. Many of the people who live in poverty work more than 40 hours a week.

The good news is that many qualified people and agencies work to help people move from poverty to possibility every day. Having made poverty the focus of the local United Way, we are partnering with these agencies to identify what they do, and to learn what remains to be done.

The United Way is funding agencies that help eliminate poverty. And as funding allows, the United Way will be looking for unmet needs and requesting proposals from agencies to meet these needs.

Last year in our community, almost 5,000 people needed rent and utility assistance. Over 5,000 families received food from local food shelves. The Northlands Rescue Mission provides food and shelter to over 100 people every day. The United Way, through its Imagination Library program, provides a book a month to over 2,600 children in our area at a cost of close to $78,000 a year.

To make sure older citizens receive proper nutrition, the Meals on Wheels program delivered meals to 664 people in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks last year.

There is still much to be done. Even though your United Way raised over $1 million and provided grants to over 40 programs at 26 agencies last year, many deserving programs went unfunded or underfunded.

I have seen how efficiently the local United Way operates. I feel good giving to them, knowing that they pay attention to details. In one recent case, an agency did not receive funding because they did not have a clean audit; United Way would not fund them until they got their house in order. That's part of being accountable to all of you who contribute.

It is with great excitement that we kick off this year's campaign. I hope you will receive great joy in giving, knowing that people just like ourselves will benefit immediately and for a lifetime, as we help them lift themselves out of poverty.

Steve Gander is mayor of East Grand Forks and a member of the United Way board of directors.

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