Heather's Story

A small desk with a laptop, books, and a chair sits in Heather Rude-Turner’s living room in northern Virginia.

Her two young children and even her two dogs know not to touch anything on that desk, no matter how rowdy they get around the house. “That’s mommy’s desk,” says Heather’s 5-year-old daughter, Naomi.

Why the caution? Because Rude-Turner, 31, has spent the last few years working toward her bachelor’s degree. She graduated in December 2011 with a degree in child psychology, a cause for celebration for her entire family. They know the road to graduation has been longer and more difficult than most.

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In 2007, Rude-Turner was living a comfortable middle-class life with her husband and two children. But her husband started drinking heavily and became extremely abusive. Rude-Turner knew this was a dangerous situation for her and her children, and so they left in January 2008. She lived with family for a few months, but eventually moved with her kids into a shelter for abused women in March 2008.

“I had those times when I was sitting on the kitchen floor just crying for an hour after I put the kids to bed because I didn’t know what else to do,” Rude-Turner recalls. “My whole world had been shattered. I spent a lot of time trying to reconnect with [God] and figure out what his plans for us were.”

She found a job driving a school bus and did everything she could to be resourceful for her and her children. By September 2008, Rude-Turner had saved enough money to move her kids into a small apartment in northern Virginia. But even then, she felt she was living on the edge of poverty. She often didn’t have enough food to feed herself and her children, so she would go hungry.

“Even though I was working, we still didn’t have enough,” Rude-Turner, a former marine, says.

But when she filed her tax return in 2009, her pastor at Ravenswood Baptist Church in Annandale, VA, told her about an important resource for working people struggling with poverty: the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). This is a refundable tax credit for low-income workers that offsets the burden of U.S. payroll taxes. Only working families can claim the EITC, which is designed to encourage people to work. Rude-Turner immediately filed her tax return and received the tax credit.

“I got about $4,000 or $5,000 each year, and that was enough money to help me purchase my laptop for school, save money, and take care of our vehicle,” she says. “Without the benefits, it would have been a lot more difficult for us to get on our feet.”

Today, Rude-Turner lives in a house in a safe neighborhood, works full-time as a teacher at a childcare center in Annandale, VA, and is engaged to be married. She hopes that her hard-earned degree will help her get a promotion at her current job—and perhaps lead to a new career teaching at a public school. Naomi and Isaac, 3, are flourishing in their new home and new family.

Rude-Turner knows it would have been difficult to reach her goals without the help of family, friends, her church, and programs aimed at helping poor and hungry people overcome difficult circumstances. She knows what people in similar situations are going through.

“All you hear about in the news is the people who have stayed on public assistance or are leeching off the system, but it’s not about that. You need to have hope and understanding and compassion and know that people are using the programs the way they should be used,” she says. “These programs are helping families like ours.”

Jeannie Choi is associate editor at Bread for the World.

A Hunger for Advocacy

Tara Marks sits on the edge of her chair, arms folded on top of the table. She looks her senator’s aide straight in the eye and—nicely, but firmly—asks him to urge the senator to consider the needs of low-income people and families in the United States and around the world.

“The business community has a circle of protection around it,” she tells the aide. “We need a circle of protection around poor and hungry people.”

It’s a request she’s been making for years, especially in her work as co-director for policy and communications at Just Harvest, a small Pittsburgh nonprofit that works for economic justice through direct service, education, and advocacy. But it’s also a request that comes from the truest kind of education—experience.

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Marks and her son, Nathan, hit a rough patch about 10 years ago when their lives changed suddenly. “I went from being a stay-at-home mom to a single mom living on cash assistance, public housing, and credit cards,” she said. “It all happened so fast.”

Marks pieced together assistance from various sources, but it wasn’t enough. Months of stress culminated in a terrible weekend, when she picked up Nathan after school on a Friday and realized she only had enough food to feed him through the weekend—if she didn’t eat anything.

Come Monday morning, Marks—lightheaded and unable to focus—drove Nathan to daycare and realized she needed to get help. “I swallowed my pride and pulled what dignity I had left, and told a neighbor what I had gone through,” she said. “She told me about a food pantry nearby, and I put food on the table that way.”

Those groceries filled a critical gap, but Marks and her son needed more sustainable help—assistance that would help her finish college so she could secure a better job and provide a living for her family.

Staff members at Just Harvest—now her current employer—helped her navigate the application process for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps). That assistance—combined with other sources, such as WIC—helped Marks and her son get on their feet and into a life of economic sustainability.

That experience has since fueled her advocacy for others who are struggling. Marks is a regular and persistent visitor to her senators’ and representatives’ offices—in Pittsburgh and in Washington, DC.

“I met a lot of amazing women in the apartment complex Nathan and I lived in. I think of these women every time I advocate,” she said. “Being poor is a full-time job—you don’t have time to advocate.”

“I advocate for these programs because I know they work,” she continued. “I used to be a statistic. I’m now another statistic, but a different kind—of success.”

Marks knows the power of connecting with her members of Congress—particularly through letters. During a recent visit to Capitol Hill, she ran into a member of Congress she knew.

“He put his hands up and said, ‘I got the letters. I got them all!’” she said. “So, wow, it really works. It really does work.”

A Call to Seek Justice

The kitchen of El Milagro Lutheran Church is the nerve center of this busy Minneapolis congregation. A stream of people bustle in and out of the room—to chat, pour themselves a cup of coffee, or drop off food for the post-service lunch.

Pastor Judith VanOsdol stops by to stir a pot of chili, laughing as she points to her thick clothes and winter boots. The boiler has stopped working, so there’s no heat in the building.

Pastor Judith VanOsdol of El Milagro Lutheran Church / Photo by Laura Pohl

VanOsdol has pastored El Milagro (“The Miracle”) since 2008. Her parishioners are composed primarily of immigrants from Latin America and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, and, like many Latinos in southwest Minneapolis, most of them struggle. They are homeless or near-homeless, unemployed, or under-employed. Most of the children receive meals through school feeding programs.

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“More people than we can realize fall between the cracks and find themselves in situations where they are unable to feed their families,” VanOsdol said. “A family came to me yesterday and said, ‘We are sleeping on the floor. Is there anywhere we might be able to get beds?’ I have a person who lives on potatoes because potatoes are dirt cheap.

“I believe our call is to walk with them, work with them, and look at the underlying reasons why people are hungry—why people are many times forced out of their homes and land, and why they can’t feed their families,” she continued.

VanOsdol has seen firsthand the places many of her parishioners come from. Prior to 2008, VanOsdol worked in Argentina for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for 15 years, traveling throughout Latin America.

“Poverty is part of a global system. I learned a lot about global economics and the processes that push people out of their homes and livelihoods,” she said.

Soon the fellowship hall next to the kitchen fills with people. The women who led singing during the worship service set out chili, bread, milk, and water. A sprinkling of desserts attracts a swarm of young children, and sounds of English and Spanish conversation fill the air.

“People need to know these programs for people at risk are critical to the well-being of the whole society,” she said. “If we ignore the segments of society that are really, really on the edge, we’re mortgaging our own future. The circle of protection has everything to do with not just what’s happening today, but what kind of future we’re building for tomorrow.”

Having lived in a country that experienced a brutal dictatorship, VanOsdol sees the importance of active and engaged citizens, people who follow the work of their members of Congress and take part in decision-making processes.

“Our faith calls us to a place of seeking justice and recognizing that God is a God of all. And there is a place in God’s heart for those who are on the margins,” she said. “It’s easy to say we believe in justice. Do we do it? Do we practice it? Is it part of our day-to-day livelihood? The decisions we make and the decisions of those we elect are also within our purview as faithful Christians.”

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