Wineskins Archive

January 6, 2014

Lessons in Poverty (Nov – Dec 1993)

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by David Leeson
November – December, 1993

16It was Ashley’s birthday. She was seven years old and I was hoping to make photographs at her party.

I had been working all week on a story about the impoverished community of Sandbranch which sits at the raw edge of the Dallas city limits. Ashley lived there with 11 other children under the care of elderly grandparents in a home which would have been condemned had it been built just a few blocks north inside Dallas.

The roof constantly leaked and parts of it had fallen. None of the doors worked, most of the window panes were missing, there was no running water, and the toilet was broken. It was so overrun with roaches that the children’s sleep was often interrupted with one crawling in their mouth, nose, or ears.

Nonetheless, I stood on their front port, surveying the immense poverty engulfing Ashley’s family and asked, “When are you going to have the party?”

She stood in the doorway behind a screen door so filled with holes I wondered why they bothered with he door at all. Her grandmother, Erma, stood quietly behind her, gently rocking an infant grandson in the crook of her fleshy arms.

An awkward few seconds passed before anyone answered my question. It took less time than that for me to realize that I was about to get another painful lesson in poverty.

“Well,” Erma began, “We’re not going to do anything just yet, but I’m going to try to make her a cake if I get some money before the weekend.” I mumbled something ridiculously pleasant, like “How nice,” and left.

My heart hurt somewhere deep inside. Ashley had said nothing with words but her downcast eyes had said everything. There wasn’t going to be any party. Parties cost money.

I felt a blazing, red-faced shame at my ignorance. In the world where I live, children never wonder if there will be a party but whether it will be with Pogo the Pony in the backyard or with Ronald at McDonald’s.

Later I learned that an uncle gave her a dollar. It had been her only present. She used the money to buy herself and a sister a Coke. Of course, the weekend arrived sooner than any hope of money and the cake and the party were forgotten.

I learned a similar lesson a few years ago while doing stories about the Asian refugee population of East Dallas. At the time, more than 4,000 people were lviing inside a one-square-mile radius of inner-city ghetto called “Little Asia.”

The poverty was numbing. One of the stories in the series was about two brothers who fought over a bowl of rice. One was killed and the other went to prison. Their mother told us the story and showed me the bowl.

I saw children who lived on a single, bony chicken leg and a handful of rice each day. It was common to see two different families living together in single or two bedroom apartments filled with wall-to-wall mattresses. Sheets hung across strings in mock privacy to form dividing “walls.”

While shooting pictures in one of these apartments, I came across an inquisitive eight-year-old boy. He seemed to stay no more than six inches from me the entire time I took photos and jotted down notes.

We didn’t talk much because his English wasn’t very good. Mostly we just grinned at one another. But since it was nearly Christmas, I wanted to know what he wanted from Santa.

He studied his feet for a long time, and then the ceiling. I grinned in amusement at his laborious decision. Either that, or he was struggling with his English. Or maybe he didn’t even understand the question. Nonetheless I waited and grinned.

Finally his eyes landed upon a small shelf located high upon the wall. He turned with bright eyes, his answer ready, and said, “I want Santa to bring me some notebook paper for Christmas.”

My grin faded into quiet amusement. “Notebook paper?” I asked. “Why?” In my world, a child’s list always seems to last longer than the time it takes to hear it. And at my home, they are usually filled with expectations greater than Santa’s wallet.

My own children struggled over whether to ask for a Nintendo or a Sega Genesis video game system. Hours of thinking went into their final decision.

So, why did he want Santa to bring notebook paper? he wanted to color pictures at home but his mother would not allow him to waste paper. The $1.39 cost was more than they could afford and therefore it was restricted to school use only. Sure enough, there upon that small shelf was a thin packet of paper out of reach for young boys.

There have been may other teachers in my life, such as Megan, an overweight three-year-old daughter of a homeless prostitute who slept on the hood of an early model Ford Maverick in the hot Dallas summer. My daughter sleeps in an Ethan Allen sleigh bed.

Or the children I’ve seen hanging out with their mothers in the sleazy darkness surrounding speakeasy clubs. I’ve faced 14-year-old crack dealers and wondered why Uzis have replaced baseball bats as the sports equipment of choice.

And there are the dead ones. Children who lost a battle they were never allowed to fight, caught in the cross fires of abuse and neglect. I have seen their tiny caskets.

There are, of course, more lessons. But don’t be discouraged. God’s people care about peole. In Sandbranch we organized a work crew to fix Ashley’s house. The church has also helped the family with Christmas the past two years.

The boy in Little Asia got his notebook paper and so did hundreds of other refugees after the church collected and distributed rice and school supplies over a five-year period.

It was on one of those trips distributing school supplies that I was able to witness the true meaning of Christian service.

Dallas Christian School, working in conjunction with Highland Oaks church in Dallas was inc harge of the giveaway that year. Some of the kids from the school went with us to Little Asia for the giveaway.

It was cold outside and temperatures were dropping when two Dallas Christian cheerleaders came up to me with concern on their faces. “Mr. Leeson,” they began, “some of these people don’t have any shoes.” I could see they were truly bothered by what they were seeing. I shrugged my shoulders and said, “You’re right. That’s why we’re here.” But we didn’t have any shoes with us.

I became busy with something else and was away from the main group for 15 to 20 minutes. When I returned I saw the cheerleaders. They seemed happier. As I got closer, I realized why. Looking down, I saw they were both barefoot.

When I get discouraged, I remember that day and wiggle my toes.

Photo essay by David LeesonWineskins Magazine

David Leeson is one of America’s most distinguished photojournalists. Honors he has received include the Heywood Broun award from The Newspaper Guild in 1986, Photographer of the Year award by the Texas Headliners in 1991, finalist in the Pulitzer Prize competition for his 1985 photographs of apartheid in South Africa, and the Robert F. Kennedy Award for his 24-page special section of The Dallas Morning News in 1986 depicting the plight of the homeless in Dallas. Leeson has been a photographer for the Abilene Reporter-News and The Times-Picayune in New Orleans. He has been a staff photographer for The Dallas Morning News since 1984. All photographs and text in this article are copyrighted by David Leeson.

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