Education, rights, a little help are steps out of poverty

November 11, 1990|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

OLIVE HILL, Ky. -- Brenda DeHart's climb out of poverty began with her son's third-grade homework.

"I could not help my oldest son with his math. I thought something's got to be changed," said Mrs. DeHart. She had left school at age 13 to care for 11 younger brothers and sisters.

"Mom and dad both thought boys need an education because they would support families. It wasn't as important for a daughter," she recalled.

So, years later, she gathered her courage to enroll in an adult course offered by the Bethany House Christian Service Center, an anti-poverty organization in this small Appalachian town.

"I started through that door, and said, no, I don't belong here," she said. "But the volunteer teacher said come in and just have a cup of coffee with me. Ten months later, I had my General Equivalency Degree."

Now 40, Mrs. DeHart's struggle to unloose herself and her family from the stranglehold of poverty continues. She is bucking odds dTC that overwhelm many others: a dirt-poor background, eighth-grade education, alcoholic husband, family separation.

Her father cut logs for the paper mill and worked evenings. Her mother cleaned homes. But "we did not know how bad off we really were. I didn't consider myself poor until I got probably 18, 19 years old. By then, everybody had a TV. You begin to make comparisons to other people you see on TV."

At 22, the man she would marry moved Brenda to Columbus, Ohio. "It was like a whole 'nother world. Just to go to a movie theater was a thrill to me," she said. "That's when I really realized what I had missed. You go to a museum and see the art on the walls, and you think, this could have been a part of my life."

But two years later, her husband decided to move back to Olive Hill. He started a construction business. They had the first of three children.

She recalled going to her son's school to discuss a problem and feeling intimidated. A friend later asked if she had seen her son's test results. "I said, 'I don't have a right to do that.' And my friend said, 'You do have rights.'

"That blew my mind away. I thought, well, if I have a right to this, what other rights do I have?"

Mrs. DeHart worked in sewing machine factories, in the local "mushroom mine" picking mushrooms, and driving a school bus. Now she began working at Bethany House, helping others with the rights she had discovered.

But there were problems at home. Her husband was working less and drinking more, she said. The arguments got louder.

"My kids went through a lot of things kids shouldn't have to go through," she said. "I've seen the fear in my children's eyes that maybe they were going to be trapped in the same kind of trap their dad was in.

"When Jerrett came and asked his dad if he could be on the basketball team, his dad said, 'No, we can't afford it.' I saw the look in Jerrett's eyes, and I said to myself, 'We can't afford not to.' "

Two years ago, when her husband was at work, she packed up her children and moved to a rented trailer. With food stamps, welfare, a medical card and her small wage, they survived.

"There was lots of nights I cried myself to sleep. . . . Thinking, how am I going to pay the utility bill?"

She knew of Frontier House, a non-profit group that builds homes for the poor, and she applied. With a low-interest Department of Housing and Urban Development loan, she moved her children into their new house in September, at a mortgage lower than her rent.

The new home is more than a safe roof. Mrs. DeHart's daughter Michelle, a bright, effusive 9-year-old, gleefully shows visitors around the home. Her confidence is evident.

"This house means peace, internal and external," said Mrs. DeHart, now 40. "It also means security. This is my future."

Her $654 monthly salary barely covers the bills. But she has elected to stop the government assistance: "It's just one less statistic the government has, just one less thing they have over my head."

Her children are happy, she said. Jerrett, 11, is on the football team. Jay, 15, is pining for a driver's license. Michelle is talking about ballet class. All three have said they want to go to college or vocational training after high school.

Their mother may get there first.

"I had already made up my mind: This is what I'm doing with my life," she said. "I am going to go to school. I am going to become a paralegal. I am -- eventually, down the road -- going to become an attorney. I may be 70 years old when this happens, but it is going to happen."

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