A lesson in community

Michael S. MillerThe path to my interaction with United Way began in 1983, when I was 17. My father decided one day he was tired of being a father, and left for parts unknown. It was like a Bruce Springsteen song: He went out for a ride and he never came back. My mother was incapacitated, in the final stage of Lou Gehrig’s disease. I had one brother, who was three years younger than me.

I tried to finish high school and take care of the family myself, which meant part-time jobs on nights and weekends. But I did not understand the economics of survival: shelter, clothing, food and health care. I was young and proud and angry, and thought I could do it all by myself. It did not take long to start missing rent payments; to realize my brother and I were growing out of our clothes and there was no way to replace them; to watch the pantry and fridge quickly empty; to start the process of moving every few months, chasing lower and lower rents.

We went to school in worn and faded clothes and shoes that were taped together. I remember my brother and I washing each other’s hair in the kitchen sink because there was no hot water for a shower. We slept on a twin mattress on the floor and woke up one morning to find mice had chewed into it and nested.

As the rents got lower, so did the fellow tenants. Drug addicts banged on doors and broke windows at all hours of the night, looking for their dealers, high or desperate to get high, scratching at the door until their bleeding fingers left streaks, then passed out in their own filth, so you’d have to step over them or around them to leave for school.

We used to go to the grocery store at 2 a.m. on Saturdays because I was embarrassed about using food stamps. They have a debit card-looking system now, but then, you pulled out a brightly colored book and counted off food stamps in 5s and 10s; and if you got something that food stamps didn’t cover, you’d have to put it aside or take it back while people sighed impatiently or looked at you with pity or contempt.

I started getting gas station credit cards like Citgo because you could use them to buy “food” at 7-11. The habit of charging survival items on credit cards eventually led to me going through bankruptcy proceedings before I turned 25.

There was a lot of temptation to make very bad decisions. Drugs and theft led the parade.

I remember being hungry all the time. We would go days with a block of government cheese and food brought home from discarded lunches at school, or a day or two without any real meal.

And I will tell you, if you have never really been hungry — really, truly, bone-deep, brain-rattling hungry — you cannot begin to understand how easy it is to divorce yourself from morality and start considering desperate choices like theft and violence and suicide.

On July 5, 1985, we were awoken just before dawn by a commotion and someone screaming the apartment building was on fire. We lost our rental place and everything we owned in a house fire started by kids setting off fireworks in an alley.

I remember watching the smoke pouring out of our building. I remember huddling under a blanket with my brother, and my mom lying on the sidewalk because we couldn’t get her wheelchair out of the building. I remember my little brother, dirty faced and crying, looking up at me and asking, “What are we going to do? What are we going to do?”

I have never felt so helpless and hopeless.

Image 3That afternoon, a friend drove me, smelling like smoke, to the United Way office in Downtown Toledo. And while I am ashamed to say I do not remember the name of the woman who helped me, I clearly remember two things. First, she did not judge me. And, more importantly to my mindset, she did not pity me. She showed me how we could get help and give back, so it did not feel like charity.

This was my first clear understanding of what a community is: people working together for the common good. And while I’ve lived in Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, Toledo and Miami, Cleveland is now where I choose to call home. This is my community.

There is no more important work than making sure people have a chance to get their lives together, not through handouts, but through compassion and hard work. That is a primary lesson I will teach my sons as they grow; they will never have to face the challenges I did, but they will know that I faced those challenges, and through the help of United Way supporters like you, I made the right choices. My sons will know that way too many people face even worse conditions than I faced, every day, right here in Cleveland, and they have a responsibility to help.

United Way set me on the path to recovery all those years ago, and I now give back to the community by working for United Way. You never know whom your donations and volunteer time will help … and how you will empower them to one day be able to proudly join you in giving back to the community. Please give to United Way of Greater Cleveland.

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