360 West Magazine: Shelter from the Storm

Charlene, 26, is a resident at The Gatehouse. She says she's there to start over and get her life back on track. Photo by Mark  Graham.

Charlene, 26, is a resident at The Gatehouse. She says she’s there to start over and get her life back on track. Photo by Mark Graham.

Domestic violence affects all races, incomes, and family members. But there’s an innovative nonprofit in Grapevine that’s creating a path for women to build new lives—free from fear, full of love, and filled with hope.  And it’s a community like nothing else in the country.


At The Gatehouse in Grapevine, sunflowers are ubiquitous. They are in the pictures hanging on the walls of the nicely furnished, spacious apartments. They are in the vases decorating the community center, where 10 staff members work to support families creating their own paths to sustainability. Soon, they will be growing in the green space surrounding the community’s nature trail and playground — resilient, beautiful and bright.

The 61-acre apartment complex and community located in a serene, heavily treed patch of land off Texas Highway 121 is designed to be a refuge offering support, safety and spiritual growth for women living in crisis situations such as poverty and domestic abuse. It’s a fortress of solitude and security, with cameras strategically placed throughout the space and a meticulously monitored gated entry. Beauty is important, too. The sunflower is the community’s symbol of faith in the future for the families living there, because the flower always turns its face toward the sun and grows tall and strong.

Keep reading here.

SNAP Judgements: Living on Food Stamps

English: Logo of the .

English: Logo of the . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The last two years have been a blur. Days have run into months and before I knew it, a year had passed. Three months after I had my daughter, my husband lost his job. And we lost the security of our middle-class life.

For six months, we qualified for food stamps. And we used every last penny that the government so kindly granted us. What I thought about being poor, about the federal food stamp program, and about social services like food stamps and WIC dramatically changed. Because I was no longer an outsider looking in. I was an insider, wishing to get out.

I debated even publishing this post or writing the story about my experience for the Texas Observer. But over time, pride fades. And perhaps, my story will make another woman in my place know that it’s all going to be okay.

Here’s my story published in the Texas Observer:

I’m a snotty 16-year-old with a crush on Reed, the dark-haired, fair-skinned dreamboat who bags groceries in my line (when I’m lucky). My feet hurt from standing at a Winn Dixie cash register all day.

Weigh the bananas. Type in produce code 4011. Take bananas off scale.

“Have a nice day,” I say, sincerely insincere.

A heavyset mother of about 25 trailing a rowdy brood of kids steps forward and hands me a sheet of paper with a government logo across the top.

WIC. I hate WIC.

WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) is a federal program, similar to food stamps, that provides assistance specifically to mothers, pregnant women and their young children, paying for essentials like baby food, formula, bread and milk. It also educates mothers on nutrition and the art of breastfeeding, which is much harder than it looks.

But for cashiers, filling out the forms and processing the paperwork takes forever, and I can’t seem to get it right. So my line gets longer. Customers get irritated. And my feet hurt.

Why can’t the government come up with a better way to help people without making my life miserable?

Two thousand dollars a month. That’s the income cap to qualify for food stamps in Texas. Two thousand dollars a month for a family of three.

My parents were teachers, no big paychecks or buyouts, but they were smart with their money and paid for everything with cash. I don’t think they started using credit cards until I was an adult. They instilled their zero-debt policy in me as well, and the Discover card my mother put in my name when I graduated from high school still gets paid off every month.

We’re standing in line at Target. My husband pays for our groceries while I coo and cuddle my baby girl, who’s gazing up at me from her expensive car seat in the front of the cart. My husband takes a white card out of his wallet, slides it through the machine, enters his 4-digit PIN, and looks down. The receipt prints. Niceties are exchanged. Plastic bags are gathered. I doubt the overworked cashier even notices we’re not paying with credit.

Last April we joined the 46 million Americans living on food stamps, more accurately known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Four million of those people are Texans. The federally funded program provides food assistance to people who earn less than $24,000 a year for a family of three.

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Losing Babies: Fort Worth Leads the State in Infant Mortality

As a new mother, I was immensely saddened and attracted to this subject simultaneously. Why does Fort Worth (my hometown) have such a high rate of infant mortality? I found some answers. And more questions. But if one baby is saved because of this story, it was worth every word.

Read the beginning of my story here, published in March by the Fort Worth Weekly:

My baby kicked and moved until the day he died,” said Jodie Kennedy.

She thought everything was fine. It was her second pregnancy. But her amniotic fluid was leaking, making her feel weak and dizzy all the time. She didn’t know that what was happening was out of the ordinary, and she didn’t have a doctor to tell her it was.

It was 2007, and Jodie had just relocated to Fort Worth from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The young mother didn’t have money for a doctor and didn’t know how to apply for Medicaid. So when she was four months pregnant, her son died.

“Oh … it hurts,” she said. “I could have saved my son’s life.”

If Jodie, 29, had gotten medical care early in her pregnancy, a doctor would have seen that her cervix was too weak to carry the weight of the developing child and could have given her injections to prevent premature labor. She knows that now because she delivered a healthy baby girl last summer. This time, with help from a federally funded program operated by a local charity, she went to the doctor right away and got the care she needed to carry the baby to term.

“If I knew what I know now … my son would be here,” Jodie said. “Knowledge is power. It can save somebody’s life, especially when it comes to a baby.”

These days, health officials and charity providers in Tarrant County are trying to turn some sad knowledge into power to help save the lives of more babies in North Texas. According to the most recent statistics available, Fort Worth has the highest infant mortality rate in the state, meaning that a higher percentage of babies here die before their first birthday than in any other major city in Texas. But it’s not just Fort Worth — the North Texas region in general leads the state in infant mortality as well.

Kennedy, with baby Kamryn: “Knowledge is power. It can save somebody’s life.”

Kennedy, with baby Kamryn: “Knowledge is power. It can save somebody’s life.”

Fort Worth, Arlington, and Dallas had the highest infant mortality rates of Texas’ large cities: Fort Worth had 9 infant deaths per 1,000 live births compared to 8.2 in Arlington and 7.5 in Dallas.

The problem also seems to be getting worse. In January, the Tarrant County Public Health agency released its most comprehensive report to date on infant mortality. It showed that the number of infant deaths in both Fort Worth and Arlington increased in 2010, even though the total number of babies born decreased during that year.

The causes of infant mortality are complicated, and none of the health officials contacted by Fort Worth Weekly would hazard a guess as to why North Texas cities seem to be so dangerous to the health of fetuses and newborns.

“If I knew the answer to that I would fix it,” said Ann Salyer-Caldwell, associate director of community health promotion at Tarrant County Public Health. Many factors add to the picture of infant mortality, she said, “and we have to dig deep to find all the issues that are affecting it.”

Some of the conditions that lead to infant deaths here carry out the same theme as elsewhere in the state: A mother’s long-term lifestyle affects her chances of having a healthy baby — infant mortality rates are higher for obese women, for instance. Mortality rates also tend to vary by race.

But at least one key factor here seems clear: Tarrant County has the worst percentage in the state of pregnant mothers receiving prenatal care. Premature babies are more likely to die shortly after birth than full-term babies. Moms with sexually transmitted infections are more likely to lose their babies. Both those factors trace back to a lack of medical care during pregnancy.

And the medical care picture for women, particularly poor women, isn’t getting any better in Texas. The legislature has drastically cut state funding for family planning and women’s healthcare in recent years, leading to clinic shutdowns across Texas, including one in Arlington.

When the state’s ban on funding for Planned Parenthood clinics led the federal government to end its women’s health program in Texas, state officials organized what they said was a replacement program. But that program has been criticized in Tarrant County and elsewhere for providing a much lower level of accessible care than in the past. And local health officials said Texas rules make it difficult for poor pregnant women to qualify for Medicaid.

“The painful truth is, many women are going without preventive healthcare that could save lives,” said Danielle Wells, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas.

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Hey, Gloria Steinem.

English: American feminist Gloria Steinem at B...

English: American feminist Gloria Steinem at Brighton High School, Brighton, Colorado (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I got the chance to interview Gloria Steinem (a.k.a. feminist leader of the free world!). Here’s the story, posted by Fort Worth Weekly:

Fort Worth Weekly got the opportunity on Thursday to talk with longtime feminist leader Gloria Steinem about gender issues, equality, and women’s healthcare in Texas.

Steinem, in her late 70s, is the guest speaker this week at Planned Parenthood’s annual fundraising luncheon in Fort Worth. She’s a co-founder of Ms. Magazine and a globally recognized expert and activist on women’s issues. Steinem also co-founded Voters for Choice, a pro-choice political action committee. She’s been a longtime supporter of Planned Parenthood, which got kicked out of the new Texas Women’s Health Program (WHP) earlier this year because Texas lawmakers approved a measure banning any organization that provides abortions from taking part. Planned Parenthood clinics in the past have been the largest provider of medical care under that program, giving women in many parts of the state access they otherwise would not have had to cancer screenings, birth control.

FWW: How does access or lack of access to healthcare affect equality for women?

Steinem: “All basic freedoms revolve around productive freedoms for women.” She said that if you can’t decide when and whether to have children, your ability to make other choices in life is greatly limited. A woman “must be able to decide the size of the family. It’s very important that every child born be loved and wanted.”

Lack of healthcare for women also has a deep affect on families, since women in most cases are the primary caregivers, she said.

FWW: In what way does the new Women’s Health Program affect young girls?

Steinem: “In states that have been afflicted by ignorance on sexual education [like Texas], girls must feel empowered to take care of their own bodies … must be able to understand sexuality. In this country, we have had several administrations promoting ignorance; Texas has many of those voices, like [Gov.] Rick Perry.”

FWW: What is Planned Parenthood’s role in Texas’ healthcare program?

Steinem: “All over the country, Planned Parenthood is the source of primary healthcare for women. It’s the reason why Planned Parenthood is one of the most trusted organizations in the country. And one in five women have turned to Planned Parenthood. … I don’t know any [other] state where the governor has been at war with Planned Parenthood.” She said that quality healthcare is less available in the United States than in most developed countries, which makes low-cost access to quality care even more important.

According to Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, its clinics charge women around $100 for a well woman exam, excluding lab fees. That same exam from a private doctor’s office costs around $300.

 

Writers On Food: Southern Influence

I’m a Texan. And I must say, without too much bragging, that Texas is a delicious place to live. Fort Worth, Texas especially.

Southerners are almost as proud of their relationship with food as they are with that slow-moving melodic twang. Like, “Hey Pop, bring me a biscuit and some gravy to soak up my grits.” It’s music to my ears. Really.

I love the relationships and memories that good food creates around dinner tables from here to the Mississippi. In this last post about writers on food, I’d like to dish out a little food for thought on the somewhat new (and already award-winning) magazine Garden & Gun.

Its October issue highlights great southern foods, and makes me want to stuff a buttered biscuit into my mouth every time I see that mouthwatering cover. Food aside (just for a tiny, itty-bitty second) this magazine artfully combines literary excellence with lip smacking, finger licking, lovin’ of life: food.

Here’s that recipe from the issue’s cover. And please make enough to share with this always-hungry writer and sinfully sad cook.

Blackberry Farm‘s Rolled Buttermilk Biscuits with Sorghum Butter
Serves 12

1¼ lb. White Lily all-purpose flour
1 ½ tsp. cream of tartar
1 ½ tsp. baking soda
1 ½ tsp. salt
¼ lb. shortening
2 cups buttermilk
soft butter

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Sift the dry ingredients together in a large mixing bowl. Cut the shortening into the flour mixture with your fingers, two knives, or a pastry blender.  The lumps will be very small, but still visible.  As soon as you feel the texture of the flour become coarse, stop.

Pour the buttermilk into the dry mixture all at once and combine. Incorporate the buttermilk as quickly and as gently as possible using a folding motion.  Adjust the consistency if needed.  The dough should be sticky, but manageable.

Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and work lightly (with the hands, use a folding and patting out motion) until the texture begins to smooth out.  Pat the dough out with your hands into a large rectangle (about the size of a baking sheet).

Spread 2/3 of the dough with soft butter.  Fold the unbuttered side onto the middle 1/3 of the buttered side, then fold the other outer 1/3 buttered side onto the top of the unbuttered dough.  Turn dough ¼ turn and repeat, buttering 2/3 dough and folding.  Repeat once more.

Pat out dough to ½-inch thickness.  May finish lightly with a few strokes of a rolling pin.  Use a 3-inch cutter (keep dipping in flour to keep from sticking to the dough) to punch out biscuits.

Place 6 by 4 on a  parchment-lined baking sheet and bake at 400 degrees for approximately 14 minutes.  Turn once halfway through the baking at 7 minutes.  Tops should be a light golden brown when finished.  Brush tops with butter.

Muddy Pond Sorghum Butter
½ cup Muddy Pond Sorghum
1 cup soft butter, unsalted

Stir together and eat with lots of warm biscuits!  Lather it on thick.

Hey, Texas Monthly

This weekend’s Mayborn Conference in Grapevine, Texas was inspiring and depressing. Shaking hands with the famous Skip Hollandsworth is a treat. But realizing that you’re no Skip Hollandsworth is a bummer. Thanks to the conference, I’m motivated to become a better writer and willing to take more risks to get there.

I also shamelessly promoted myself to a very gracious Brian D. Sweany, deputy editor of Texas Monthly. And Brian, if you’re reading this, I promise, I’d be awesome.

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