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Forum addresses local poverty, family issues

Liz Harter | Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Students in Saint Mary’s social work program hosted a community forum Tuesday addressing current issues pertaining to families and children.

The forum – presented and planned primarily by the 18 students in the social work major and anthropology professor Frances Kominkiewicz’s Human Behavior and the Social Environment class – addressed violence, poverty and education in the Michiana area.

“The forum is a way to bring the community together and to connect them with the people in the community who are out there to help,” sophomore social work major Deanna Molosky said. “We want to make them agents of change.”

This year’s forum was entitled “Empowering the Community: Become an Agent of Change; A discussion of violence, poverty and education affecting the children in our community.”

Students in the class chose the panelists based on their experience in the social work field and their ability to impact the lives of the children of the community, sophomore Katie Putz said.

Speakers for the forum included Nikki Gonzalez, a social worker employed by the office of Congressman Joe Donnelly, Jessie Whitaker, director of the LEND Homeownership Center in South Bend and Warren Outlaw, director of the Educational Talent Search Program at Notre Dame. Others included Mark Geissler, a South Bend Community School Corporation social worker, Pastor Hardie Blake, a member of redevelopment commission for South Bend and Lilia Periquet, part-time faculty member and field instructor for the Saint Mary’s Social Work program.

All the panelists shared their unique experiences related to the discussion and many of them incorporated stories of their work with undocumented citizens.

“People think that those who come over from other countries are immediately able to get Social Security benefits, Medicare and Medicaid,” Gonzalez said. “This is very untrue, and the population that this most affects is our children.”

When a child is born in the United States, then he or she is a U.S. citizen, Gonzalez said. If they have parents who are not U.S. citizens or permanent residents, then they do not get the federal benefits because they do not have a legal resident petitioning for the aid on their behalf.

Periquet agreed with Gonzalez and said those who check in to the Sister Maura Brannick Health Center must be at least 150 percent below the poverty level.

“People who are accepted to our clinic are those who do not have any insurance and are not qualified for insurance,” Periquet said. “Due to those requirements, the children that we have [at the Center] are the children of undocumented people in our community.”

Many of the problems presented at the forum involved the education of children.

“Children can go to school, but when they graduate from high school, what do they do?” Periquet asked. “Education is one way to get out of poverty, but if you don’t have the money to pay privately for a college education, you can’t get an education.”

The panelists also said there needs to be a change in how those mired in poverty think.

Blake, who runs a parenting course for fathers at Ivy Tech Community College, said the intention of his program is to shift a parent’s priorities so that he thinks of his children first.

“Our emphasis is on the children and we try to get the fathers to understand that,” Blake said.

The class plans the forum annually, although it was not held last year because Kominkiewicz took a half-year sabbatical leave. In past years, the department has won awards for its extensive efforts in the area of gerontology, the study of aging. But for the past two forums, the students have decided to address issues affecting children and families.