A pin could be heard to drop and periodic sniffles were being muffled in different parts of the ballroom as an otherwise silent crowd of 500 listened intently to Jennifer Stevenson-Moore speak about growing up “without.”
As the 42-year-old Willoughby woman acknowledged, her story of growing up in “extreme poverty” is “far from uncommon.”
But it was her emotional description of the societal segregation and feelings of isolation and worthless as a child, plus her explanation of how those experiences helped shape her life today and prompted her pleas for people to be more alert to poverty that moved the audience – some to tears.
Jen shared all this during a recent Langley Christmas Bureau fundraising tea held at Cascades Casino before a sold-out crowd.
Growing up in Kamloops, she was only four years old when her whole life was turned upside down.
Her father had become a violently abusive alcoholic.
“When my mom couldn’t take it anymore, she took us girls, (four, two, and newborn) and left in the middle of the night.”
Very common in that era, her mother didn’t work nor have resources to support herself. Finding herself on her own as a single-mother and “dealing with her own demons” (namely biopolar disorder and manic depression attributed to the abuse) Mom found herself in the welfare system and unable to properly provide for her little girls.
Even the slightest increase in rent would mean they’d have to pack up and move again – Jen recalled moving 10 times during elementary school alone.
“We didn’t have money. We had food or rent, but not both. And we didn’t have money for basic necessities, such as winter coats and boots,” she recounted.
Growing up in a winter wonderland, where -40 C temperatures were normal, she remembers going to school in sandals and shorts “because that’s all I had.” And, she’d do her very best to take care of every piece of clothing, knowing they’d ultimately be handed down to her siblings.
“I still remember the first Christmas without presents under the tree,” Jen said. She assumed she and her sisters didn’t get gifts because they were bad.
“I didn’t know what I’d done that was so wrong, but it must have been something really terrible,” she shared. “I wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t smart enough. I wasn’t important.”
It’s charitable organizations like the Langley Christmas Bureau that change the world one family at a time, she said, and they did that for her.
“I just figured this out recently, that poverty is like a disease. It’s like being covered in a blanket that creates judgment and isolation. It’s a blanket that you are powerless to take off of yourself, especially when you’re little,” Jen said.
Thankfully, that all started to change for Jen one night, just before Christmas when she was nine years old.
“I will never forget that knock on the door,” she said. Her mother had been on the couch for months, but suddenly leapt up with obvious unexplained excitement and a smile to answer the door.
“There were friendly warm faces carrying boxes full of food and Christmas gifts for my family,” Jen recalled.
One adult in particular looked over at her and with a smile and brief eye contact helped change Jen’s outlook on life – forever.
“That was the first time in my life I remember being seen for who I was, a nine-year-old girl, and not just some poor kid,” Jen said, again pleading with folks to watch and recognize the tell-tale signs of poverty and to do what they can to help.
“It was the beginning of me seeing the world completely differently – seeing the world as a loving place instead of a harsh one – and changing my broken heart to an open heart that would go on to helping other people.”
In those boxes were wrapped gifts with each of the little girls names on them.
“They were exactly what we wanted,” Jen recalled being in shock and awe at the kindness of these complete strangers.
“That night, that hamper – and the many hampers that would follow – is why I’m standing here today,” she told the audience.
“I don’t know if I’d be here today if I hadn’t been shown those examples of kindness and love at such a young age,” she added, encouraging guests at the tea, and residents of Langley in particular, to help make such a life-changing difference for others.
“I promise their lives will change drastically for the better when you see them for who they are and not for their poverty. And, it will change you even more,” Jen suggested.
She’s now a registered nurse with a “beautiful family” of her own – her husband, David, who was in the crowd, and their sons, Lachlan, nine, and Greyson, five.
“They’re so, so precious to me. I’m so lucky,” Jen said, explaining that her boys have been taught from a young age to avoid judgment and to give to those less fortunate than themselves.
It was kindness and compassion that helped change her life one Christmas more than 30 years ago: “Please remember, your heartfelt generosity can help so many families in need.”