Live United: Helping those in need still have dignity, be empowered

Published 8:45 pm Friday, September 3, 2021

Live United by Erin Haag

Have you heard who Gerry Brooks is? He’s an elementary school principal in Kentucky. He’s become a hero of sorts to educators and school social workers across the country. He’s now a highly sought after motivational speaker, with his unique brand of humor, deep southern accent and tongue in cheek pokes at guidelines that hinder educators from what they do best: teach.

Erin Haag

He’s popular for his car videos where he sits in his car and waxes philosophical about the trials and tribulations of working in the schools. They’re funny, they’re pointed — and they resonate within you with some solid truths in life.

My friend posted a video. In it, he starts out telling how he’s getting texts from the school counselor that they’re headed to Walmart and he’s asking why they’re going to Walmart in the middle of the school day. When the answer is a “PE teacher needs tennis shoes,” he understands nothing, but confides to the video “Lord, I aint’ got time for this, Jesus take the wheel, I’m just going to move on, not even going to ask.” I laughed at this because I feel that statement several times a day.

He says that he sees the PE teacher later with the shoes and asks what was going on. The PE teacher told him that morning during breakfast duty, he heard kids making fun of their classmate for wearing Walmart shoes. He’s got that class later this afternoon.

At this point, Gerry slows down his rapid, comedic style of storytelling. Holding that pair of Walmart shoes, he is intent and looking right at you.   “Let that sink in. That’s called giving someone dignity.”

Drop. The. Mic.

Giving someone dignity. We have that ability to give someone dignity every single day. For me, it’s always been about giving people choices. Choices to empower them, and the respect and kindness to honor those choices, even if it’s not what we believe is the right one.

Giving people dignity is at the heart of much of the work I do every day. We structure our Winter Gear Drive to be a shopping experience, to give people the dignity to choose for themselves. I’ve written in the past how a well-intentioned volunteer wanted to give someone a purple coat. That person actually preferred a black coat and respectfully asked if she had to take the purple coat. The joy in her face when she was told she could have the black coat is exactly what we hope for — dignity. Empowerment. Choice.

Nikolle oversees the NAPS delivery program for homebound seniors. She loves her group of seniors and worries over them, and enjoys talking to them each month. She talks to them, learning that the seniors worry about getting food that they can’t use, or don’t enjoy, but aren’t sure what to do with it. They wish they had different things, foods that remind them of growing up. The month that there was no peanut butter in the box, we heard about it.

Choosing the food we eat, choosing the clothes we wear—it gives us dignity. It’s something we inherently value above all things, so why would we deny it to those that need it the most?

When the school social workers call and say, “I’ve got a kid that needs a coat,” I’ll often ask what their favorite color is. I don’t always have the options, but I’ll snap pictures of the choices and send it back. Or drop off three to four versions and the kid can pick.

That’s dignity. I feel like I need to make a large decal of Gerry Brook’s face and the word “dignity” to hang up.

With that, this is a good time to remind our community about the annual United Way Winter Gear Drive. We gather coats, boots, hats and more from the community, and accept monetary donations. We work directly with the school social workers to meet the needs of specific sizes and kids. I can tell you that we’re always in need of waterproof gloves and boots and snow pants.

In about a month or so, you’ll see white boxes around town. However, if you’re taking advantage of the change in weather and the long weekend, go ahead and bring them to the United Way office. We typically have someone available from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Mon/Tues/Wed, and other times by appointment.

We’ll be looking for volunteers to help us collect coats and bring them back to the office to sort and organize. Distribution dates start in October and run through December. We’ll also need teams to help work those distribution evenings.

Together, we can give families the dignity of choosing what they wear, and keep everyone warm this winter. If you’d like to volunteer or learn more about hosting a box at your workplace, give us a call at 507-373-8670.

Erin Haag is the executive director of the United Way of Freeborn County.