Thank you to the world’s Janets

A one-room apartment, much smaller than my office, and in a terrible neighborhood. Three kids and a single mother. Nothing to speak of in the way of material possessions.

Boxes stacked against a wall, making it clear the family was living on cereal alone, and probably without milk.

My friend Janet — I’ve changed all the names in this story — was shaken as she talked about what she’d seen. She is a woman of middle class comfort whose children are grown. She is a woman of integrity and kindness, of polish and poise. Never in a million years would she have let her own kids live in the conditions she witnessed, not for a single minute.

It started when she and her adult daughter, Connie, decided to adopt a student through Love INC of Lorain County. The Elyria-based nonprofit helps put necessities in the hands of people who truly need it. Janet and Connie knew back-to-school season can stretch wallets to the breaking point, and they wanted to help.

“Everybody wants to help the cute little kids, the kindergartners,” Janet told me. “We thought, ‘You know who might need us more? A teenager.’”

That led them to Kevin, a high-schooler in Lorain.

Kevin’s mother, Laurie, works as many shifts as her employer allows at a small corporate retailer. The store is within walking distance, which is lucky because the family can’t afford a car. Kevin is her oldest and she supports two small girls as well. The biological father, I’m told via Janet, only shows up to harass Laurie for their past differences. They have never been married. He does not pay child support.

He just bangs on the door and blusters, Janet said.

Laurie numbers among the ranks of America’s 9.5 million working poor, those who spend 27 or more hours a week at a legitimate job, often minimum wage, trying to make ends meet. Often that effort doesn’t pay off. The American myth of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, the false idol of meritocracy, has failed her.

Desperate, she reached out to Love INC, hoping for a little help with back-to-school clothes for Kevin: underwear, socks, and uniform pants and shirts. Even in Lorain where uniforms are the norm, Kevin’s been picked on for not having nicer clothes. He often wears them far too large because Laurie buys them to last through growth spurts.

When Janet reached out to Laurie on the phone about making a drop-off, Laurie at first snapped, “Who is this?” It turns out she was fearful it was the father calling, and apologized right away, mortified by the mistake.

Together, Janet and Connie drove to a section of Lorain that can’t be described any other way than “the projects.” (I’ve been in the neighborhood. I didn’t want to be.) They were greeted at the door with a gratitude that shook their souls. Kevin was embarrassed but thankful, while his sisters reveled in the gifts as though it were Christmas morning, and never caring the gifts were all for their brother.

Looking around at the humble home, quietly broken by the poverty they saw, Janet and Connie decided to go shopping again.

They returned with sneakers, school supplies, a backpack, a shaving kit, and more for Kevin. They showered the two little girls with clothes and toys. And they knew Laurie hadn’t bought anything for herself in a very long time — everything she earned, every hour she worked, every thought in the world she had was for her children. So Janet and Connie bought her nail polish, a purse, and some clothes they knew Laurie would otherwise never dream of lavishing upon herself.

It was about $300 they would have otherwise burned on meaningless purchases, Janet said. Many of us have the luxury of discretionary income — I bought each of my kids a small toy this weekend and treated them to lunch at Wendy’s without a worry in the world that it would dent my pocketbook. Laurie and many others scrape by.

I have never been more grateful to Janet in the decade I’ve known her.

That’s because not so many years ago, I was very much like Kevin. My father, a preacher, eked out a very small salary. My mother, a hairstylist, worked day in and day out for little more than tips. I remember realizing we were poor. I remember being hungry, though Mom and Dad never failed to put an evening meal on the table.

Yes, we certainly did use food stamps. Always coupons. And once in a while the kitchen held little more than a loaf of bread, a block of cheese, a gallon of milk, a couple boxes of cereal, and some peanut butter and jelly.

We shopped at the Salvation Army for everything we could, including back-to-school clothes. Name brand sneakers? No way. Name brand anything? If you could get it at a yard sale. And I rib my parents to this day about repaying the $7.14 they stole one night from my Tootsie Roll coin bank when they thought a kindergarten-aged Jason was asleep, just so they could buy some groceries. We were very nearly homeless once, though not without the option of crashing on family.

The Hawks never had it quite as bad as Kevin and Laurie, though it came razor close a couple of times. Still, when I think of what my friend Janet did, I can’t help but feel that in a way she was giving those much-needed clothes to me. There were Janets in my life, and I was never good at saying thank you because of the inescapable shame of having to accept help.

The only thing I can do is pay it forward. And learn to say thank you to Janets everywhere.

Consider giving to Love INC of Lorain County. Visit

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The Way I See It Jason Hawk, editor Way I See It Jason Hawk, editor