I’ve run campaigns to support the Food Bank. I’ve organized hampers at Christmas for families in need. I’ve helped to sponsor a family of refugees through a work initiative. I’ve given snow suits to the snowsuit fund, and I’ve supported my 13 year old’s initiative to grow vegetables and then give them away to the community.
Until last week, however, I had never publicly asked for help for my own family.
We are a family of seven, existing on one income. We have made choices in life that have led us down this path and I, in no way regret them, nor deny ownership as the creator of my own destiny. Raising five children on even a stable, reasonable income is incredibly hard, which may or may not be a surprise to many readers. With cost of living continuing to rise at a rate with which incomes are not keeping pace, many families are left with much less disposable income and diminished buying power. I know we are not alone. We struggle to afford necessities like food, let alone extracurricular activities.
Our third child has found his niche in an activity that is very demanding financially. He has always struggled with self-esteem and confidence issues. The wonders of genetics have grown him to be a giant boy, and while I see a smiley teddy bear, he is constantly teased for being fat, and slow and lazy. People are mean!
In an attempt to allow our child to excel, in his own sport that was not the same as his brothers’, and in which he could be successful and proud of his accomplishments, as well as enforce self-discipline and healthy living, we put him in pre-competitive swimming two years ago. He loved it more than we ever expected. It’s been a wonderful, inclusive activity that has been a source of confidence and self-worth.
Thomas is so good at it that he was been moved up to junior competitive this year, which is more expensive to start with, plus tournament fees, the cost of away-stays, and a fee for each race at the tournament. In addition, the increasing costs of our families’ needs continue to crush our already non-existent disposable income.
I applied to help from organizations like Jump Start and Kicks for Kids. The answer was a resounding no, as we don’t meet the criteria for the low income cut off (Note: this is a 1992 based number, and the max allowable income for a family of 7 is $58k. Please consider that for a minute).
I contacted the head of the swim club and offered to volunteer my services as a freelance writer to support them in advertising. I offered to fundraise at minimum twice what the fees would cost, to offset my son’s registration. I offered to volunteer for the entirety of each at-home meet so that other volunteers wouldn’t be so pressured to devote time, in exchange for my son’s enrollment. I was disappointed to learn that none of these options was considered viable. (Please note that this is not meant to be construed as a negative comment about our swim club – they have obligations to meet as well.)
I thought I had come to terms with Thomas not being able to swim, but he asked me again, quietly and without anger or judgment, which was even more heartbreaking than if he had been aggressive about it, if there was no way we could do swimming this year. He offered to sell his possessions to make it work.
It is hard to admit that you need help. There is a definite stigma associated with financial discomfort, as the natural assumption is that you’re a bad money manager or you’ve been somehow irresponsible. This is certainly not always so.
I posted a request for input on a local Facebook page, Stittsville Moms, asking if anyone could point me in the direction of an organization that could help our family. I pressed ‘post’ and waited with baited breath to see if I would be shamed, or supported. I was incredibly unsure as to how this request and story would be received.
Within in an hour, the post had over 100 responses. The comments made were not accusatory or judgemental; rather, they were understanding and empathetic. I had many suggestions of organizations to contact to try to cobble together funding for my son to be able to keep swimming.
Many people also extended gifts of financial support to us, offering to personally send funds to aid our family. I declined, as my intent had never been to take from others, who of course work just as hard to support their loved ones as we do ours. I was, however, deeply touched by these proposals.
I contacted many, many organizations over that first night and the following day. To my dismay, each organization either provided a categorical no, or have yet to respond (12 days later and counting).
Discouraged, I boarded the 262 OC Transpo bus to head home one night, and sat beside a man I don’t know who said: “Hey, are you Jessica Sultan? I saw your post on Stittsville Moms about your son. Did you manage to find help?”. I shared with him how I had not been successful, and my feelings of sadness and futility at providing our son with what he needs. He asked me to please give him my email address as he and his family would truly like to donate to us to help our son swim.
It was a moment of intense personal reflection, as I fought a battle between not wanting to demand of strangers or ever take advantage, and also accepting help where required, and admitting my vulnerability and need.
I gave him my email address. And his family sent me a very generous donation that night.
Over the next few days I received over 50 Facebook messages as well as e-mails from people who wanted to donate to us. I humbly and appreciatively accepted. The result?
This is why we live where we do, fellow-Stittsvillians. This is why community matters, and why it’s okay to be exposed and honest.
My son is swimming this year thanks to all of you. He is happy. He is confident. He is proud. He is healthy.
Words cannot express my gratitude and the immense pride I feel in being part of this community. Thank you, Stittsville, with all my heart!