November 10, 2023

Our Works of Charity / David Bethuram

A story of a childhood in poverty and the drive to a better future

David Bethuram

In my ministry and profession, I have been fortunate and privileged to meet wonderful people who have overcome adversity in their lives, even at a young age.

I met Rita about 10 years ago. She grew up in Philadelphia. I was honored that she shared her childhood story with me and the struggles she and her family faced every day. Her family lived in dire poverty.

She told me that she remembered the smell of mold and mildew, that she would watch as her most valuable possessions were destroyed by them. The smell of decay was all around her.

She remembered being cold and being in houses with no heat or hot water. She told me her stepfather would use gray duct tape to wrap around the cords of the heater when they burned out so they could keep using it. Yes, it was a fire hazard, but who cared—the heater was keeping them warm. On occasion, she said she would hear a sizzle and a pop from the heater. Despite all their efforts, her family was still cold.

Rita said her family never had a working kitchen. Her mom would cook food at her grandparents’ house and then take the food back to wherever they were staying. Most of the places she said they lived had no running water and were very unsanitary. She and her siblings would also go to her grandparents’ house to take baths. She grew up thinking that it was OK to live like this.

As for food, she said she didn’t starve, but she was hungry. They ate whatever they could afford. This is where the past affects the present. Today she is somewhat of a food hoarder—she is afraid of not having enough food for herself and her family.

Rita told me she knows what it feels like to not have the food that you need or want. She has to constantly remind herself that she no longer lives that way. But it’s the only way she’s ever known.

Rita said she doesn’t take showers, only baths, because she’s used to it. If she does get cold or hungry, she told me she has learned how to deal with it. She describes that it is like an out-of-body experience.

She said that’s what it’s like when you are born into hunger and a dirty, unhealthy environment. This kind of living goes back in time, too. If an adult is used to living that way, it’s likely because their childhood was the same way. You are stripped of your dignity. You are ashamed. Your soul feels like a bottomless pit. You feel less than human.

Rita is now in her 30s, and she is still haunted by the trauma and food insecurity. Her scars run long and deep—they will always be there. The long-lasting effects of trauma stick with you. But she refuses to let her past dictate her future.

Rita believes that her memories keep her humble. Even though she grew up in poverty, it doesn’t mean she has to live in poverty now. Instead, she has been shaped by the idea that while you can’t change the past, you can change the future.

Today, Rita is far from her childhood of mold, cold and hunger. But even though she has healed a great deal and doesn’t live that way anymore, the effects of early poverty and trauma are still a part of her being.

They shape her into the woman she is today: a woman who is motivated and works hard to make sure that her daughter will have more opportunities than she had growing up.

Rita took what she experienced as a child and used that to drive her to be a better person for herself, her family and for others who live through the trauma of poverty.

(David Bethuram is executive director of the archdiocesan Secretariat for Catholic Charities. You can contact him at †

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