Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Progress is Personal: Aunt Bertha's Roots (Part II)

I can still remember lining up for lunch in elementary school. I would dilly-dally and always be the last kid in line. I did this every day. You have to get creative figuring out how to be the last one all of the time. You tie your shoes. You act like you forgot something.

I knew all the tricks.

I didn’t want my classmates to know that I was getting free lunch. In New York, it was obvious if you had free lunch. You didn’t give the lunch lady money - kids with free lunch had brightly colored cards that were kept on the wall behind her. You would have to tell her your number. It held up the whole line - for what seemed like an eternity.

At 9, in small-town-USA, I experienced the stigma associated with government programs. The stigma is still there - loud and clear - but there’s a little more dignity to the process now - thanks in part to technology and better public policy.

Ask yourself this: how many kids in this country didn’t want to go grocery shopping with their mother because they were worried about their classmates finding out they were on food stamps? How many mothers go shopping in the middle of the night with this same fear? Life’s too darn hard to worry about stuff like that. But millions are worried - millions are becoming anxious about things that aren’t that important in the long run. And you can't help but wonder if that anxiety about these things is keeping people from doing other things - more important things - like getting new skills and applying for that better job. I believe it's all related somehow. 

At the age of 35, I’m thankful for the safety net of social service programs. It helped my family through some pretty difficult times. My first home was in the projects. A couple years later my parents saved up and bought the house I grew up in. Financial aid and subsidized loans helped me get through college. Social security disability helped my mom after she got sick, lost her memory, and had to rebuild her life again.

I remember my dad used to say: “Erine, there ain’t nothing you can do about it so it makes no sense in worrying.” 

Twenty years later, I finally understand what he means. And on most of the things I worry about, he was right. But I spent a lot of years not accepting that there were things I just couldn't change. That stubbornness helped me make some pretty big changes when I was a government consultant. Changes that I’m proud of. But I worried more than I really needed to.

My dad was right, but I don’t accept that I can’t do anything about the messed up human service delivery system in the United States. 

We have consulting firms hiring expensive lobbyists to get gigantic software contracts - only to over promise and under-deliver. We read about major fraud cases at least once a month. We create policies that are well intentioned, but through poor administration and follow-through, actually hurt people.

Aunt Bertha can’t save the world. I realize that. But if we can help a 9-year-old kid be a little less anxious about something, that’s pretty good stuff.

Erine Gray is the founder of An avid runner, former human service delivery consultant, and proud resident of Austin, TX. Read more about Erine here.

This is Part II in a series of posts explaining the reason for Aunt Bertha - a friendly human service directory connecting people to programs. Read Part I here.


  1. Hiding out in the bathroom and library were my usual choices, for many reasons.

    Thank you for what you are doing, this is a true benefit to our society!

  2. Thanks for the comment and sharing your story, Hademenos!

  3. Wow, really powerful story, Erine. Thanks for sharing it, I will be re-sharing!

  4. Thanks for the comment and sharing, Marybeth!