Updated: Aug 6, 2021
Afternoons playing in dirt with a sibling, exploring the woods, and riding bicycles suddenly transformed overnight into wondering where we might live tomorrow. This is the unfortunate situation my family found ourselves in.
Our father, the sole earner of our household, had decided to take his own life leaving me (aged 12), my brother (aged 8), and my mom in his wake. Once our grief had subsided we wondered: what will we do? While my dad was alive, we had been living paycheck-to-paycheck, not that I really understood what that meant as a child. We didn’t have any savings, so how were we to pay the mortgage and our bills going forward? Very quickly I learned what living paycheck-to-paycheck meant, and it immediately was felt when we were no longer able to buy snacks at the grocery store and were forced to instead focused on essentials.
Fortunately, we soon learned about a safety net program called Social Security Survivors Benefits which allowed us to collect income from my late father’s contributions into Social Security. This was an immediate relief to my family. No longer did I have to think about getting a job when I turned 16, nor was my mother forced into trying to hold multiple jobs. We weren’t taking any vacations but knowing that the house would be paid for a few years was relief enough. Unfortunately, my family had too much pride to take advantage of other safety net programs such as SNAP (supplemental nutrition assistance program), but I did have many peers that did rely on these programs. Often, I would see other high school students stuffing their bags with extra food from school lunches, as that was their only meal of the day. This is a widespread issue which is even getting attention on popular news outlets like NPR "We definitely hear of kids who tell us they don't have food,” said an NPR commentor. “We hear that a lot, to be honest with you.” It’s important that we remove the stigma of these safety net programs so that families in need don’t have to feel embarrassed or afraid to take advantage of the programs. It is understandable to fall on hardships and its okay to need extra assistance to overcome them.
Unfortunately, Social Security Survivors Benefits expire when you turn 18 (or 19 if you’re still in high school past your 18th birthday) so I had to begin looking at the future. What would my career be? Where could I afford university? Growing up in poverty had me incredibly debt-adverse so I was really desperate to not take any loans. I focused on tuition assistance for my next set of vital safety net programs. I decided to attend a local trade school for networking and telecommunications, but even a few thousand dollars each semester was unaffordable.
This brings me to a few state and federal school grants. These school grants and scholarship programs are available in some instances. Georgia has a few unique ones such as the Hope Grant and Hope Scholarship. I was awarded both, allowing me to earn my associate degree debt-free. I also was able to take advantage of the federal Pell grant which helped me afford necessities as I worked through two jobs to survive while attending college fulltime. My friend, Thomas, was awarded the Zell Miller Scholarship, based on academic achievement, which allowed him to attend a more prestigious school and obtain a bachelor’s degree. Without these programs there is no doubt we wouldn’t have the financial security that we do today. Thomas is a mechanical engineer creating safer airplane components and I’m a network engineer. I believe these scholarship opportunities are vital to our community.
These programs have helped enable me to reach success. There’s no doubt in my mind that if we didn’t have survivors benefits then I would’ve been working in construction yards once I was 16 and could not have afforded to attend college. I know several people that would be in the same boat as me. These programs give children a second chance in life.
CJ Cannon is a Customer Success Specialist working for Cisco Systems. He enjoys exploring the outdoors with his wife Priya by hiking, kayaking, snowboarding, and skateboarding. He’s looking forward to learning to surf this season at the North Carolina Outer Banks as well as attempting to get a scuba certification. While not enjoying the outdoors its likely you’ll find him playing video games, learning a song on guitar, or hosting friends for a dinner party and board game night.