Tour highlights county poverty

Connie Clark held back tears Thursday.

She had just visited impoverished elementary school students and a soup kitchen full of poor and homeless adults.

In people of all ages, she saw desperate needs.

Clark and more than 100 other Catawba County residents observed poverty's effect on their neighbors Thursday, and they discussed opportunities to help the needy.

From South Newton Elementary School to The Corner Table soup kitchen in Newton, the iCare 4 Catawba Tour of Resources showed members of the faith, business and nonprofit communities that poverty is real. The tour also revealed that many in the community need substantial help.

Stops on the tour — which was one of many events for Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week — also included a Boys & Girls Club, a YMCA in Hickory and Catawba County Parenting Network in Conover.

"Most of it was putting a human face on poverty, mostly children and what they deal with because of what they were born into," said Amanda Freeland, who coordinated the tour for Congregations and Community, a faith-based community task force of churches and nonprofits. "People saw children who needed mentors or a safe place to go at night."

More than half of the county's students qualify for free or reduced lunch, said Beth Brandes, assistant director of Catawba County Social Services.

Many of those students attend South Newton Elementary School, one of the tour stops.

Principal Julie Styers said more than 75 percent of the school's 327 students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

"We, as a staff, try to build relationships and meet their needs as much as we can," Styers said. "We want you to see what our students do and deal with each day."

Melanie Elrod gave each poverty tour participant a penny, and she gave two women coats to wear.

"The pennies represent children," said Elrod, the career and technical education director for Newton-Conover City Schools. "So often, we toss our children away just like a penny. Our children need your help. Some of our children, that's the only coat they have, and they don't take it off all day because they're worried someone will take it."

Clark wore one of the coats.

Clark's husband, Steve, pastors New Life Authentic Christian Community, a church with locations in Conover and Hickory. Clark said the church has programs for the homeless, translators for people who don't speak English, and it is starting a ministry to help provide food and homework assistance for needy children in the community.

Clark said the church also has a vision to start a "City of Hope" to provide for the various needs of the poor and homeless.

"The poor don't have the money for transportation to get to everything they need," she said. "If we can give them one place to get everything they need, that would be the goal. With the down economy there are so many things we can do. I think we were all impressed today with the need. Now it's how we can gather what we do to help."

Freeland said connecting organizations with various resources was the goal of Thursday's tour, the first time the event carried the iCare name. Previously, it was known as the Poverty Tour, and the last such tour was in 2006.

"We're trying to take resources and build bridges to make the community better," she said.

"A lot of participants today said they've been to parts of the county they haven't been to before," Brandes added. "They've seen a lot of needs and resources."