What Can You Buy With A Dollar Anymore?

This was the question I asked my group of sixth graders at Martin Luther King Jr. High School in Newark. A moment of silence followed and a few blank stares were sent to me in passing. My Team Leader (who helps me out every Thursday with my class) laughed at me.

I was definitely confused. For most of my adolescent and adult life I have watched the power of inflation take over and the prices of everything escalate. I still remember the days when I could go to the General Store in Stillwater and buy penny candy or even a candy bar for under a dollar. Those days, to me, were far gone. You can’t even buy a McDonald’s cheeseburger for a dollar (don’t forget about tax!). I mean, come on, in the last couple weeks the gas prices have gone up almost every day and are now surpassing four dollars to the gallon. Was I really crazy for thinking that buying something for a dollar alone was something of the past?

Then he responded. ”Are you kidding? I can go to the corner store and buy two bags of chips and a can of soda for just a dollar”. 

I was AMAZED. Three items? Chips?? Soda?? No way. This was inconceivable to me. It’s true though, in Newark.

For those of you unfamiliar with Newark, it’s pretty famous for being one of New Jersey’s most impoverished, crime-stricken towns. Sure, there are nice areas (NJPAC, Rutgers, Prudential) and Newark has cleaned itself up a bit, but those areas are fewer and farther in between. I never thought—especially in high school—that I would have anything to do with this city. You see, my fight-or-flight response tells me to flee away from anything that may harm me. To me—growing up in probably one of the smallest, homogenous towns in the state—cities like Newark were something to be aloof from, to ignore. The same is not true for me anymore. Rutgers really opened my mind up to diversity (it’s one of the most diverse Universities in the country!) and gave me a glimpse into the lives of those most impoverished (New Brunswick is jam-packed with homeless people). I began to WANT to help, to WANT to make a change, to ENCOURAGE others that their lives can be different. That’s how I found out about Citizen Schools.

Citizen Schools is a non-profit organization that currently works in 9 different states and serves as a means for expanding the learning day for children in impoverished schools. New Jersey now has three campuses: Ivy Hill Elementary School, First Avenue Elementary School and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School. All these campuses are located in Newark. Last year, I did the program at First Avenue and the kids were phenomenal. They paid attention and wanted to learn and participate. I had an amazing experience there and truly believe I made a difference in some of those kids lives. This year is a little different. I’m working at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School which claims its spot as the MOST impoverished Elementary/Middle school in Newark. These kids are coming from generations of parents that did not even make it to high school, let alone college. They are coming from abusive homes, from (in some cases) drug-addicts. To most of these kids, they are stuck in the “poverty trap,” a never-ending chain of misfortune.  The overall tone of the school is much different for this reason—the kids don’t really care about school because they have never been encouraged to achieve and have never seen the results of trying your best to make it somewhere. 

This past year after a new principal took over the school, Citizen Schools became a required activity for all sixth to eighth grade students (NOTE: in First Avenue, and some other campuses, Citizen Schools is an optional after-school activity). The kids were NOT thrilled about the extended school day. I can’t blame them. If I were still in middle school, I wouldn’t be either. But the problem with Dr MLK Jr is deeply rooted in the teachers at the school—low wages, less benefits, no enthusiasm. Most of the regular day teachers don’t care about the students because they have behavioral problems and “they aren’t getting paid enough to deal with it.” To me, this is very unfortunate. If you have the opportunity to really change someone’s life, wouldn’t you grasp it?

Anyway, besides the Team Leaders and the Campus Directors that are there every day with the students, the Citizen Teachers (like myself) volunteer our time one afternoon a week to teach a class based on anything we have interest in or knowledge about. I’m teaching a class called “Save it or Waste it.” It’s an environmentally-focused class based on the idea that we can reuse a lot of what is thrown away or can make products out of common household products instead of buying separate items in the store. My class is going to be making reusable items and selling them to people at their final presentation (called the WOW!) which is an evening where future employers, college representatives and people of all kinds of education and work experience come to appreciate what these kids have accomplished. The point is to make these kids enthusiastic about their futures and them that they can achieve pretty much anything as long as they work hard and put their mind to it.

Now that you have a brief idea of Newark and what I’m doing there, let’s go back to the dollar.

Over the last few days, that conversation was weighing on my mind. It’s clear that the “corner store” markets to Newark’s majority population—the impoverished. There is no way that I could find a similar place where my apartment is, in Metuchen, or even in Edison. But that’s okay. People in these areas can afford to pay three dollars for chips and a soda, whereas people in Newark really can’t.

I like the idea of making items such as these more accessible to the poor. My only issue is type of items they are. In a country that has been down are throats about proper diets and nutrition ever since the obesity rate got out of control, I find it hard to believe that we cannot provide people in Newark with more affordable way to eat a little healthier. This is where my thoughts have been since I had the “dollar” conversation. I know it may sound a little crazy, but if we can sell two bags of chips and a soda for a dollar and people are buying them, why can’t we focus on trying to improve what we’re actually selling to them (the ingredients, the nutrients)? Very idealistic, I now. But seriously, I don’t think it’s that inconceivable. 

Unfortunately Dr. MLK Elementary School is under scrutiny. Newark is debating closing the school and building a charter school in its place. To read a little more about this very real issue, please check out this article from the Economist: http://www.economist.com/node/18340477  

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