As more La Plata County parents slip from security to poverty, educators and social service providers say the hardship inevitably trickles down to their children.
The impact on these kids is almost too vast to put into words, said Eve Presler, program director for Advocacy for La Plata, a program that serves at-risk and low-income families. But its also phenomenal to see how resilient they are.
Childhood poverty rates are soaring locally and at the state level.
A 2008 Kids Count study showed Colorado had the fastest growing poverty rate in the nation. And a recent U.S. Census report showed childhood poverty grew from 14 to 18 percent between 2008 and 2009. The national poverty rate grew just 2 percentage points during that period.
Alarming indicators of growing childhood hunger associated with these statistics in La Plata County have prompted Care and Share Food Bank for Southern Colorado to ramp up efforts here. Officials with the organization said by their calculations, the county doesnt have enough food banks to adequately support the growing number of families experiencing poverty and hunger. Other supplemental programs, including a backpack program that would send food home on the weekends with some local schoolchildren, are needed, a Care and Share spokesman said.
Struggling parents try to shield their children from whats occurring, but the kids know whats going on, said Cindy Griffen, youth pastor at Pine Valley Church in Bayfield.
Griffen oversees a free weekly after-school program and community dinner that serves an average of 150 children.
We hear it in their dinner-time prayers, Griffen said, her eyes welling with tears. They pray that their parents will find work or that theyll be able to stay in their homes.
And while being poor doesnt always undermine a childs development, Fort Lewis College psychology professor Michael Anziano said it can. The stresses some children living in poverty experience can impact memory function, brain development and a childs overall mental health, he said.
Park Elementary Principal Scott Cooper said the harsh reality of poverty becomes painfully apparent to children during the holidays as trips to see extended family are canceled and fewer gifts appear under the Christmas tree.
In January, we pick up the pieces, Cooper said.
A growing number of students these days call the local shelter or a low-budget motel home, said Needham Elementary Principal Pete Harter.
Some kids watch their belongings sold to pay for food and shelter. Some hardly see their parents, who have taken second and third jobs to pay the bills.
Meanwhile, older children are filling adult roles, doing more household chores, baby-sitting younger siblings and even holding down jobs to help pay for food and rent, according to local teachers, providers and students.
They miss the routines, after-school programs and organized activities that filled their hours before the crisis, said Laura Hager, program director for the Boys and Girls Club of La Plata County.
The turmoil is affecting some students grades, attendance and behavior in the classroom, school officials said.
Its also tearing apart families, advocates said.
At the Durango Womens Resource Center, free pro-se divorce documents are flying off the shelves, said Liz Mora, director.
School officials say theyre doing what they can while trying to be careful not to pry too much.
Outreach efforts such as the Discovery Program for academically at-risk high school students have kept some potential behavior problems at bay.
Food boxes doled out to the districts most needy families during the holidays also help, school officials said.
In the end, though, the strength children are able to muster from within has been most surprising and reassuring to helpers.
Seeing how these kids are responding in the face of their tough situations has been a learning experience for all of us, Hager said. Its kind of something were all going through together.
firstname.lastname@example.org Herald Staff Writer Emery Cowan contributed to this report.