In the Lunchroom

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March 5, 2009. Sitting in our comfortably decorated offices, we seem so far removed from the topics of poverty and social services that seem to pop into our lunch table conversations everyday. Our program, Community Action Energy Conservation, works very closely with the Energy Assistance program for Ramsey and Washington County and operates as a non-profit program that meets the needs of low income families regarding their energy costs, energy related repairs (i.e. fixing or replacing heating systems), home weatherization and conservation education. Because we spend a good portion of our time talking directly to the people we are helping, it’s easy to see why the issues relating to our surrounding community is so prevalent in our conversations.

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As I listen to my colleagues, it’s interesting to see the difference in opinions on almost every subject.

Barb, as the first contact with potential clients, is subjected to a lot of the personal stories of the families we help so it’s very understandable that she could easily be bogged down by the intensity of these conversations which then brings a slightly pessimistic viewpoint. Just last week she was telling us about an elderly lady in St. Paul who can’t afford to heat her house and has been spending her days in the bathroom with a book because it is the smallest and easiest room in the house to heat with her little electric space heater. Barb speaks very passionately about the shortcomings of the social systems in place, specifically regarding senior citizens, and the fact that not everyone is getting the help they need and some who don’t need help are getting it anyway.

Our senior auditor Rodney on the other hand, sits quietly everyday with his newspaper and listens to the conversation with an air of “everything is going to be OK” and injects calm and hopeful thoughts like rainbows just over the next cloud. I admire his viewpoints on life and find it so inspiring that he can maintain a rosy outlook when he sees more of the dismal side of our city than any of us. He goes into the homes and sees first-hand how these people live but he never seems to let the sadness of the situation affect him. He chooses instead to focus on the ways he is personally able to improve the situation such as multiple contractor visits, conservation education and home maintenance tips.

Listening to these two people I very much respect, I find myself teetering on the edge of the proverbial fence. I am still too young and democratically idealistic to fall prey to complete cynicism of our social structure but I have seen and talked to people who have such a low quality of life that it makes me want to agree with Barb when she says that “to be the richest and most powerful country in the world and still have this growing level of poverty is absolutely unacceptable.”

_Genevieve Ashenfelter, Lino Lakes, is enrolled at Anoka-Ramsey Community College_

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