Lessons from Growing up ‘Poor’

By Jeremy Van Dusen, Education Program Services Manager

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I grew up living in poverty. This was something I did not realize until I was older. I thought everyone in the city took the bus, because everyone in my neighborhood took the bus. I thought everyone in the city used the food bank, because all my friends’ cupboards were filled with the same generic government-labeled food that filled my cupboards. We all mixed water with powdered milk before we poured our bowls of cereal. We all wore Skips (off-brand sneakers) and hand-me-down clothes. This was life.

Grocery shopping was my first experience understanding that my family was a little different. My mom used paper money that looked different from the paper money others in line were using. I asked my mom why our money looked different. She stated that we used food stamps—that we got help so we could eat. That moment has resonated with me to this day.

Our move to Washington when I was 11 years old really brought our poverty experience into focus. We packed our things, hopped on a Greyhound bus and made the journey from Binghamton, New York to Spokane, Washington. I was enrolled in a new school, but nothing about it was like my old school. Most notably, everyone was white. I began to make friends and noticed differences in the way my family dressed, and the way we talked. I went to my classmates’ houses and no one else lived in an apartment. Their parents dropped them off at school, and most of them brought lunch from home. I had never brought a lunch. I always got free lunch at school. No one in my immediate family knew how to drive a car, and I never saw my friends on the city bus.

As I grew older it became clear to me: We were poor. The first day of school after Christmas break was always particularly hard because everyone had new shoes and new clothes, and they would talk about all the gifts they had received. Honestly, it felt horrible. I started carrying feelings of shame and embarrassment. I made up stories about where my mom was employed and why she didn’t drive. I never invited friends to my house because I knew once they saw my home and my family, they would see the stark differences in how we lived.  This was how I managed until high school.

In high school, I was still embarrassed and wished we were not so poor, but I loved my mom and my family and knew we had things to be proud of. My mother taught me how to love and instilled in me the pride to believe in myself. Growing up in poverty taught me empathy and perseverance. I have always believed in myself and my abilities. I knew I could focus on school and build a life that looked different than my childhood.

As I became a man, I started understanding how my experiences enabled me to be resilient, how to persevere and how to respect people for who they are as an individual—and not by what they have. I think there are a lot of stereotypes placed on those experiencing poverty that do not actually come from the people experiencing it. These judgments come from people on the outside trying not to look into the experience. Hardworking, trustworthy, reliable, clean, efficient, successful and disciplined are all words not typically associated with poverty. But those words are very much demonstrated by those experiencing poverty. Being poor does not make anyone less than someone else and having money doesn’t make anyone better. I am proud to be who I am and proud of where I’m from. I would not change a thing.

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About the Author

Jeremy Van Dusen is the Program Manager for Graduation Success in Spokane. He is a passionate leader and is thankful to serve the Spokane community.  Jeremy is originally from Binghamton, New York and moved to Spokane as a youth.  He graduated from Eastern Washington University in 2012 as a triple major with degrees in philosophy, history and humanities.

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