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Nonfiction in response to No Poverty
January 2018
By Kelsey Cashman
CC Image courtesy of Rosh Sillars

Winter in Maryland. A time of frost, snow, and chilly winds. A time when most people zip up their winter coats and throw on a hat and gloves before heading out the door. A time, for most, of warm crackling fires, steamy hot chocolate, and holiday joy. But not for all.


Maryland's population is 5,887,776, and the number of these people living in poverty is 573,383- about 10%. In Baltimore, one of Maryland’s biggest cities, 144,849 residents live in poverty, according to 2016 MD Poverty Profiles. These people live below the poverty line - making less than $23,850 a year for a family of four- and are unable to afford basic necessities such as food and clothes, much less warm winter jackets and hot chocolate. However, while there are many people living in poverty, there are also many charitable people and organizations looking out for those less fortunate. One such person is McDonogh Sophomore and Baltimore resident, Laya Neelakandan.

Over the past six years, Laya has been working to help the homeless in her community, also encouraging pre-first and first grade students to assist her in giving back to their community. For her projects, Laya teaches young students about the issue of poverty, while at the same time working with them to make trail mix, sweet treats, winter hygiene kits, and fleece blankets that she then delivers to those in need.


Laya began her quest to help those in need in first grade, when her teacher Mrs. Mary Catherine Irving taught her class about the importance in helping the homeless. Three years later, when Laya was nine, Mrs. Irving reached out to her and encouraged her to apply for a micro-grant to continue the service work that she began in first grade. Laya applied for the grant and received it, and has received many grants to fund her projects since. In total, she has raised almost $9,000- all of which she has given back to her community.


With her work, Laya has directly touched the lives of 1,200 less fortunate people in her community. After making the food, winter kits, and blankets with the first graders, Laya then goes out into the streets of Baltimore with her mentor Ms. Irving to personally distribute these items to homeless people, experiencing many moving moments. For instance, one day when Laya offered the hygiene kits to a 4 month pregnant woman, the woman began to cry with gratitude and pulled Laya into a circle of prayer, and Laya says that “in that moment, religion and culture could not separate us - instead, we created an invaluable connection and bond of humanity, coming together even though we didn't even know each other's names.” Over the six years Laya has been working to help those in need, she has made and distributed 150 handmade fleece blankets, 750 bags of trail mix, and much, much more. Laya continues to work with young students, encouraging them to both learn about and work to fix the problem of poverty in their communities. Because, in the words of Laya, “I believe that the tools for changing world lie in the hands of my generation and we are the ones that need to drive this change to truly make a difference”.


In addition to Laya’s charitable works, McDonogh school also has many fundraisers and programs to create awareness for and help solve the issue of poverty in our community. Every winter, the school has a “Holiday Project” that involves every homeroom adopting a family that can not afford to pay for Christmas presents, and each person in the homeroom donates five dollars and one present to ensure that the family has a happy holidays. Each year, McDonogh sponsors over 100 Baltimore families. Also, every year the middle school has a Global Citizens week, in which students buy groceries for less fortunate families and go through programs to teach them about the struggles and impact of poverty. In one of these programs, all of the students are asked to go to school without having eaten breakfast, and then are randomly assigned a country. Based on the country’s poverty level, the students are given varying amounts and types of food. Some students receive large meals of fruit, a bagel, and fruit juice, while the majority receive less filling meals such as half of a bagel, half a cup of Cheerios, or nothing at all. One final example of McDonogh’s charitable spirit is the Stuff a Bus fundraiser, which involves students donating canned goods and nonperishable foods to help those in the Baltimore community who do not have enough to eat.


Around the country, and the world, there are people who are working to educate their communities and ease the effect of poverty. If more of us could work together to do what people like Laya and schools like McDonogh are doing, then slowly our combined actions would be able to ease the effect of poverty in our communities and make the world a better place. And eventually winter, and all other seasons, could be a time of joy and wellness for all.

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