Fulton: No Jobs, Stress and Little Help11/01/2014 by Whitney Jones
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Pam McCrite sits by the window of her dim living room in a western Kentucky housing project. She keeps the lights off when she can so she doesn’t have to pay out of pocket for electricity.
Toys, chairs and a smattering of other objects sit on McCrite’s front porch and a dog barks outside her open screen door.
McCrite is a single mom, with two sons living in her Fulton home. 22-year-old DeMarquis is a community college student and soon to be father. Her youngest, Jakiran, is a middle schooler who is hearing impaired. She beams as she pulls out a photo of him as a four year old, grinning ear to ear.
“I call him my miracle child because the doctors told me when he was born he was deaf in his left ear and by the time he was twelve, and I get emotional about this, that he would be totally deaf,” McCrite said.
He’s not completely deaf, but because of his disability, McCrite’s family has a regular source of income: a $657 a month disability check. That and $93 worth of food stamps is all the family of three lives on. McCrite gets no help from her sons’ fathers.
But this family is not the only one in this small rural town that is struggling. Like McCrite, Fulton, Kentucky, is in the dark.
On Young Shoulders
More than a third of families with children in Fulton County live below the poverty line. That rate is more than 15 points higher than the national average.
But 80 percent of single mothers are living in poverty and more than 40 percent of children here are growing up poor.
National Social Work Rural Caucus Vice President Peggy Pittman-Munke says these students are stressed out. Some live in overcrowded homes or worry about being evicted. Some have parents who are working two or three jobs and are rarely home.
“For somewhat slightly older children, instead of being children themselves, they may be responsible for almost carrying an adult load at home,” Pittman-Munke said. “They may be responsible for the care of much younger children. Poverty does children no favors.”
Tracy Pulley knows poverty weighs heavily on Fulton’s children. Her parents grew up here and moved back after her father finished his military career. Pulley joined them in Fulton following a stint as a journalist and a divorce. Nowadays, she coordinates the Fulton Independent School District’s Family Resource Center that supports children and families so they can be successful in school.
A Limited Support Network
“The stories that children tell me at the cafeteria table are heartbreaking,” Pulley said. “Their neighbor was arrested last night. Their momma is in jail right now. These are not uncommon stories and children are very enduring and they live through all these things but it makes their school day much more of a challenge.”
Pulley says many students see school as a respite from the chaos they experience at home.
This town of 5,000 people has no YMCA, no United Way, no Boys and Girls Club. And no mental health clinic.
Kristian Alton is a National Certified Counselor with Four Rivers Behavioral Health. She drives half an hour once a week to see clients in Fulton.
“I go down there simply because they can’t afford to come here, but the truth is I could be down there five days a week and see a full caseload,” Alton said. “There are limits to what I can do for them and they need so much more than just to come in and talk to a counselor. I can teach them the skills and I can give them maybe a new way of looking at something, but if they don’t have the support services in place in the community to take advantage of those skills then all the skills in the world aren’t going to help them.”
One source for steady support for the people of Fulton is the community’s churches. In fact, Pulley says she often has to rely heavily on churches to provide supplies or funds to help children
Pulley also often points families to Fulton’s food bank, located in what used to be a church. Today, the pews are full of people waiting for their food. Walmart bags and cardboard boxes filled with off-brand cereals, pasta and cans of juice cocktail sit on the long table in the former sanctuary. Volunteers slide the bundles to each other, sometimes carrying them to people’s cars.
Don Pinc and other volunteers with The First United Methodist Church run the Ken-Tenn Food Bank for people in two far western Kentucky counties and another in Tennessee. Pinc says people line up hours before they starting passing out food each month, but many of them are seniors, not young families.
Hurting for Minimum Wage
“The kids, they get out of school – if they go to college they don’t come back,” he said. “They find a job somewhere else because they can’t find a job here, at least a job that pays. We’ve got professional people here, doctors and dentists and lawyers. Other than that, people in industry and so forth, they just don’t come back.”
Businesses have fled Fulton and surrounding towns within the past two decades. Pinc knows that personally. He moved to this area from Chicago in 1983 to work at a printing plant. In 1999, it closed.
Mention one of a long list of companies—Goodyear and Dura to name a few—and people in the rural town will tell you the same story. Even with Fulton’s easy access to a rail system, the flight of businesses with decent wages have left the the town’s people with few options.
The biggest employers here are the school system, the hospital and Turner Dairy. But Pam McCrite said most other jobs are minimum wage and, for her, too physically demanding.
“I never thought at 44 I would be disabled, not able to work because I hurt, in pain so much,” she said. “I tried to go back to work at McDonald’s in March, and I only lasted three days because I swell. My feet swell, my hands swell. I take blood thinners so I have to be extra careful not to bruise myself or cut myself.
“I have to weigh my options. Which is more valuable to me – staying alive, my health or going out there trying to make $7.25 an hour? Is it worth it? My children need me more than McDonald’s do.”
McCrite has health issues that keep her from working and she’s trying to apply for disability. She admits she’s a “big girl.” She also had a stroke several years ago and lives with diabetes, high blood pressure and anxiety.
“I feel like the anxiety comes in from stress. Stress is the main thing I suffer from,” McCrite said. “I have sleep apnea. I stay up worrying at night. How are we gonna do this? How am I gonna pay this?”
Four Rivers Behavioral Health Clinical Social Worker Damond Houston said McCrite’s issues are common among people living in poverty.
“Long term stress does cause physical problems,” he said. “And since they don’t have easy access to health care, it doesn’t get taken care of until it’s almost too late, until it becomes an acute problem like high blood pressure… Anxiety attacks, they can cause strokes and stuff like that.”
Connecting Families with Resources
One relief for McCrite is her neighbors in the housing project. If the single mom next door knows McCrite hasn’t eaten, she fixes dinner for both families. And McCrite has done the same for her.
McCrite says moms who have extra milk from their WIC benefits will even knock on neighbors’ doors until finding someone who can use it.
It’s this sense of community that also keeps Tracy Pulley, the school’s resource coordinator, in Fulton. She is also a single mom and likes that she can see what her work accomplishes in the rural setting. The three-minute drive to work isn’t bad either.
But like many people in social work jobs, Pulley had to learn boundaries.
When she started at the Family Resource Center in the 1990s, she constantly worried about a girl who was angry at school and had a difficult family life. And Pulley was getting intense headaches.
Not until leaving Fulton and coming back to the same job 12 years later did Pulley strike a balance.
“The children here at this school, each of them has a responsible adult who is in their life and is supposed to be taking care of them, and it is just my job to connect that adult with resources and then the child with resources and then they have got to do that,” Pulley said. “I have got to empower them. I cannot do things for them because that is a very short term solution and actually makes things worse.
“You’ve got to make sure that when I work with families that I am guiding them toward independence. So that relieves some of my stress.”
So Pulley keeps searching for resources, including grants that would support the children of Fulton. But she wishes this town had a community mental health center and more businesses to support charitable nonprofits. She says more jobs would be good, too.