When I look at pictures of myself as a kid, I’m always smiling. I have one of those pudding-bowl haircuts and I’m clad in classic 90’s double-denim, and my cheeky grin is peeping out from under my shaggy fringe.
What the pictures don’t convey though, is how very hungry I was. My three sisters and I never had breakfast, and packed lunches were something mythical. They were something that other kids got out of their schoolbags at lunchtime, but never us. But my sisters and I were the lucky ones. We weren’t like our other classmates, the ones who roamed the corridors, who stole those coveted lunches.
Our family was lucky—our school bags always had a rustling fun-size packet of chips to see us through our 6-hours of learning and play. Chips might not have been the most nutritious option—but they were a fabulous bargaining tool. I used to look at other kids’ lunches—at their wrapped sandwiches, their luxurious yoghurt bottles, their Fruit Roll-Ups—and it would amaze me that kids would swap any of these tokens of love for my paltry packet of chips. But they would. On the bad days, when the other kids got fed up with me perching by their lunchbox like a seagull, when they wanted their sandwiches—those were the days when I spent my afternoons in a dejected fog of hunger and fatigue.
To the outside world we were a picture-perfect family—four little girls, with beautiful shiny hair. But whenever anyone came close to us, we shrunk away from them, terrified that they would discover the armies of head lice we were infested with. The poverty we lived in was ever-present but never acknowledged.
It’s only in recent years that my sisters and I have started talking about what things were really like growing up. One of my sisters told me how humiliated she felt when one of her teachers used to bring two packed lunches to school each day—one for herself, and one for my sister. How she used to be bullied because she only ever had hand-me-downs to wear, and had never owned anything that was hers alone. I was lucky—I had an outfit to call my own. My boy’s polar-fleece and faithful jeans saw me through the wintry mornings walking to school—but they couldn’t protect me from the Dunedin rain. Winter mornings were usually spent on the mat trying to ignore the lingering dampness of my clothes against my skin. My shoes were always sloshing with water and my feet were always cramped into shoes many sizes too small, but it would never have even occurred to me to tell my parents. There was never any money for something as luxurious as new shoes.
For me, school was my sanctuary, a warm place where my thirst for knowledge meant that I had more to focus on than my empty belly and my aching head. I might have been hungry, but the encouragement of teachers who took a special interest in me got me to where I am today—a young woman with a PhD scholarship, with a stable income. These days, I can afford the luxuries that I can never take for granted—food, medical bills, and heating.
When we think about child poverty, the first image that comes to mind is usually the one that we’ve seen on ads—wide-eyed children in far away countries, peering sadly up at the cameras. But poverty is also a lot closer to us than a lot of us realise—it’s in our own neighbourhoods. In America, 22 percent of children live in poverty, one in six U.K. children go to school hungry, and I am ashamed to say that 27 percent of New Zealand’s children live in poverty.
It breaks my heart that there are kids out there who have to worry about where their next meal will come from. I don’t want other kids to have to suffer like we did—I want to help them.
So these days, I put my money where my mouth is, and I give to charities that help children who are just like me and my sisters. My favourite local charity, KidsCan, provides things to kids that look so small and basic when you see them listed: Lunch, shoes, socks, jackets, pants. The kind of things most people take for granted.
But for me and my sisters, being fed, being warm—it would have meant the world. It would have reassured us that there was hope in our futures, with a community that cared about our welfare. It would have meant something unimaginable—dignity.
Child poverty charities in your area
Our Literally, Darling writers have written up a list of local charities for children you can donate to.
Australia: Barnados Australia
New Zealand: Kids Can
UK: Barnados UK
Worldwide (including Gaza): Unicef