Thursday, 19 November 2009

Welfare Troubles…

My eighth grade class at Bunam Middle school (with only three students) began as it always did; a warm-up activity, a short discussion, and an introduction of the new material. One of the benefits of teaching in such small schools is that I know all of my students. I know their names, I know where most of them live, I know what most of their parents do, I know their usual grades, their attendance, etc… I can also tell when something is wrong.

When I reached the main content of my lesson, I sat down with my students and we began a group discussion about the topic. Right away I noticed one of the girls avoiding eye contact. I asked her a question, and she looked up at me with tears in her eyes. I glanced over at Mrs. Jeon who immediately went over to find out what was wrong (her English level is far too low to explain anything to me). Within seconds, tears were pouring down her face as she attempted to explain herself (through the sobs) to Mrs. Jeon. I sat for a moment, desperately trying to understand anything from the conversation, but I couldn’t. I was asked to continue the lesson with the boy, so for the last twenty minutes of class I sat and tutored him one-on-one.

After class, Mrs. Jeon explained everything to me.

First, I’ll give you a brief history of what I already knew about her. I knew that her family wasn’t well off financially (I was informed of this a couple of weeks into my contract), and that occasionally the teachers had to go out of their way to help the family (on one occasion, Mrs. Jeon had to drive her to the hospital because her family didn’t have the money for a taxi and the buses were no longer running at that time). I also knew that she had a history of being disruptive, rude, and an overall “bad student.” But what I can tell you from first hand experience is that in the almost three months I’ve been teaching her, she’s been extremely quiet, polite, and a contributor to class discussions when prompted. This was the first time I had seen her in this state.

What I didn’t realize was that she had a lot more on her shoulders than I had previously imagined.

As the eldest child, and without a father, she was obligated to raise her entire family by herself. She lives in a one bedroom house (it was described to me as being more like a “shack”) with her older cousin (who helps pay for groceries) and her mentally handicapped mother. Her only income is from government welfare (approximately $300/month) and the occasional “temp” job that her mother can get as a farm aid. Their monthly income is generally spent on bills within days of receiving the money; therefore she is entirely dependent on her cousins “donations” to buy food.

Yesterday, her cousin came home with a girl. Despite having just met her, he introduced her to the family, and she stayed the night. When he woke up in the morning, she was gone…and so was all their money…

They went to the police, but with no name, address, or photo, they had no way of tracking her down. The girl simply vanished, leaving the family with absolutely nothing.

I noticed a little bit of apprehension in Mrs. Jeon’s voice as she told me the story, so I prodded a bit further.

I asked her, “Is the school able to help her family at least until the next welfare payment arrives?”

“No,” she responded “but we can collect donations from the staff to help. The only problem is…” and then her voice trailed off.

Confused, I asked her, “I’m sure a small donation from each teacher would be a reasonable thing to ask?”

She shifted uncomfortably and continued, “Yes, yes. $10 per teacher is not a problem. The problem is with, well, her type of people… They, um, expect this. When help is given, it is expected, not appreciated.”

Her family is more than capable of cutting down monthly expenses (both her and her mother own cell phones, she always has nice clothes, they have cable TV etc…), but they rely on outside funding instead of cutting internal costs. Welfare money is seen as easy money, and little or no effort is made to rectify the situation. For all of you Canadian and American readers, does this sound at all familiar?…

It’s really frustrating to see people in this type of situation. You want to help, but you don’t want to be taken advantage of. We’re in no position to tell her family what to do with their money, so all we can do is make sure she has the basic necessities to make it to the next payday (take our donations and go grocery shopping with her), and hope that her cousin doesn’t bring any more sketchy girls back to their home.

- Ken


  1. I don't think giving money will be the solution. Money is something we must work for. I would love to be there and share some of my food and offer my shoes if needed.

  2. Wow...What to do...It tears at the heartstrings because you do want to help but you also have to watch your hard-earned pennies as well. You are so sensitive and compassionate Ken and that in itself is wonderful.