This post originally appeared as an op-ed in the Courier Journal on December 5, 2016.
I’ve lived in Kentucky my entire life. I grew up like many other kids in the more rural areas of the Commonwealth. I grew up climbing trees in my backyard and playing in the creek near my house. Although many of the wonderful experiences I had as a child were fairly normal, my childhood overall was far from conventional.
I am one of nearly 53,000 young people in the Kentucky kinship-care system. My father left before I even came into this world. My mother passed away before I had barely learned to talk.
My grandmother and my great-grandmother were there to take us in. They filled in the gaps that my parents left. It had been nearly a lifetime since they had children of their own, and all at once they were doing it for a second time.
My grandmother and great-grandmother were very aware that a normal childhood wasn’t in the cards for me. There are risks and pressures present, both financial and emotional, that make lives like mine difficult. I was in eighth grade when I lost my grandma to breast cancer. It was a really tough moment for all of us, particularly my great-grandmother. My great-grandmother, at 92-years-old, chose my brother and I once again. She chose to become a caretaker, while many of her friends were being taken care of. Her choice was a sacrifice for stability in her great-grandchildren’s lives.
My great-grandmother’s name is Ruby Ferrell.
Our life isn’t easy. We take things day by day. When we run out of milk, I run to the grocery store. She still comes to see all my school plays. We sit at the kitchen table together and discuss our finances for the month. We take care of one another.
I have to wonder what would happen to me if my great-grandmother died tomorrow. I don’t have the security in doing otherwise. I’ve spoken often about the level of support we have received from my community, however that fear is ever present and needs to be addressed.
This is the fear that so many young people like me are living with. The KIDS COUNT 2016 County Data Book shows that more than one in four kids live in poverty. I am one of them. I don’t want to gloss over this part of my story, because it is the reality. I am poor, not because my family didn’t work hard enough, but because of my parental living situation. Economic and emotional support is vital to my family, and families like mine, when stability and security are either scarce or non-existent.
I am incredibly aware that my story is not every story; I am actually one of a very small percentage of kids who grow up in foster or kinship care who will go on to college.
The truth is, policy affects all of us, for good or for bad. In Kentucky people like my grandmother do not get the same financial assistance or other supports that a foster parent would – and yet they are still asked to provide the same level of care, sometimes in spite of poor health, economic insecurity, or advanced age.
When we see what the KIDS COUNT data says, when hear stories of struggle, of heartache, of triumph, we have a choice to make. It’s a choice I’ve been confronted with, and often times have fallen short of myself. We can choose to simply say a few nice words…to stick with making our inspiring post on Facebook, or we can choose to become active participants in making changes in the lives of Kentucky youth. Children across the Commonwealth are entitled to having their basic needs met. Kentucky’s children deserve to feel safe and secure and hopeful about the future.
We no longer have the luxury of shying away from the truth of the situation. My great-grandma always says that “The gospel isn’t good news if it doesn’t get there on time.” Young people like myself don’t have the luxury of time. The moment is now.
Katie Okumu is a senior at Berea Community High School in Berea, KY. Read the Kentucky KIDS COUNT 2016 County Data Book here.