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story.lead_photo.caption Lincoln University student Keianna Hunter reads a book after school Thursday to first-grade students at the Boys & Girls Club of Jefferson City. The club is one area resource to help families facing poverty. A statewide report says about 19 percent of Missouri children live in poverty. Photo by Sally Ince / News Tribune.

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Maybe the biggest challenge Domonique McDonald and her fiancé have is paying the bills.

"The most common struggles I have are pretty much trying to stay on top of everything financially," McDonald said. "Electric bills, keeping the kids busy with sports and things like that."

It can be daunting, especially for the working poor, she said.

It's not unusual for her fiancé, who works at a tree-trimming company, to put in 60-80 hours a week, but the pay isn't what she would consider "high," McDonald said. And, with four children — ages, 10, 9, 4 and 2 — she has to be a stay-at-home mom.

Her family is similar to about a third of those in Missouri who live under 185 percent of the federal poverty level, according to Missouri Kids Count, whose goal is to improve lives of children.

The U.S. government uses a measure of income to determine who is living in poverty and to determine their eligibility for subsidies, programs and benefits.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the poverty level for a single person in a home is $12,140; for a two-person household is $16,460; for a three-person household is $20,780. For each additional person in a household, the income increases by $4,320. So, if the couple doesn't make $33,740 annually, the family falls below the poverty line — 185 percent would be about $62,400.

McDonald's children are among those who are considered to be living in poverty — a fifth of all Missouri children.

The 2018 Missouri Poverty Report (published by Missourians to End Poverty) determined more than 12 percent of all Americans live at or below the federal poverty level. In Missouri, 14 percent are at or below the level. The report found about 261,000 Missouri children (19.2 percent) live in poverty.

"We can talk about Uncle Sam — the cost of living," McDonald said. "We work extreme hours to maintain. That's taken away from the kids, who need supervision or the one-on-one bond to even have the confidence to go out into the world and do positive things — or not go out and get into trouble."

McDonald said the family oftentimes struggles to have the extra funds to do things the children want to do, such as participate in sports or other activities. Those activities would help the older children stay busy and keep a positive attitude.

Her choices for the children's activities in Jefferson City are limited, she said.

"I try to get them involved in anything that I can come across as far as activities," she said. "It is a challenge to get them to activities and back. But it's nothing that my fiancé and I can't figure out."

Some help, McDonald said, comes from Big Brothers Big Sisters of Jefferson City. The couple's two oldest boys are both little brothers in the program.

The program is important to the mother of four. It lets the boys interact with people outside the family circle in social situations, she said.

Within the past year, the national program changed from a focus on mentoring to one focused on an urgent need for adults to "step up and defend the potential of every child."

Lee Knernschield, executive director of the local program, said it's evident Jefferson City's working poor need additional resources.

They are challenged by housing and utilities costs, Knernschield said.

Big brothers and sisters in the program oftentimes see children who don't get enough food.

There have been examples of children living in homes in which, because they can't afford the utilities, the parents string extension cords to neighbors' homes to "borrow" electricity or ask the neighbor to let them shower in their home because the water has been shut off.

"It's a common issue that maybe you have to borrow resources from a neighbor. They may not have utilities, so they 'piggyback' on their neighbor," Knernschield said.

Another problem, according to Gina Clement, executive director of Capital City Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), is that children living in poverty fall behind their peers early.

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"One concern we see, especially with kids in poverty is that they are not entering school at an early enough age," Clement said. "They are not required by law to enter school until the age of 7. By that time, they may be far behind their classmates who may have gone to preschool or kindergarten."

CASA is a volunteer-powered network of people from all walks of life who believe society has a fundamental obligation to make certain children thrive, are treated with dignity and are kept safe, according to the Capital City CASA website.

CASA volunteers, appointed by judges, watch over and advocate for abused and neglected children. They try to make sure the children don't get lost in overburdened legal and social service systems or languish in inappropriate group or foster homes. Volunteers remain on their clients' cases until the children are placed in safe, permanent homes.

CASA volunteers don't become involved in children's lives until the courts do. They don't provide services as much as collect information about how things are going within the homes and schools.

They let the courts know if a child is in a Head Start program or how they are doing on a day-to-day basis in school, Clement said.

"I would say that all, if not most, of (CASA clients) are struggling with poverty," she said. "Poverty doesn't equal neglect. Poverty doesn't mean a parent doesn't love their child or isn't doing their best. We recognize that."

Jennifer Harper, a single, working mother, feels lucky in one regard — she was able to get good child care for her youngest child, 4-year-old Haylee.

The girl attends Little Explorers Discovery Center in Jefferson City.

"It took me a little bit to get her in there," Harper said.

Every morning, Harper gets her children ready for school.

The boys, ages 10 and 13, attend elementary school, while Harper prepares to drop Haylee at the center.

Little Explorers provides child care while Harper makes what money she can working at a fast-food restaurant.

"With the business not opening until 10 o'clock, it makes the hours a little more difficult," she said. "It pays decently, but it doesn't get me out of a situation where I can afford a lot of things on my own."

Fortunately, the center charges on a sliding scale so it can work within Harper's budget.

But the budget is tight, she said.

"My two older ones want to participate in after-school activities," she said. "But with the financial situation, it's hard to pay for all the stuff that they want for that kind of thing. A lot of times, they go on field trips through the school or even day care — and sometimes it's really hard to pay. Sometimes I have to borrow money just for them to go."

The vast majority of children who attend the Boys & Girls Club of Jefferson City after school face poverty every day, club Executive Director Stephanie Johnson said.

Joy Ledbetter, the club's social worker and family advocate, said the challenges facing children who attend the club could be overwhelming.

Recently, the club has started expanding after-school, extracurricular activities, she said.

It has started programs such as a Little League team within the Jefferson City Parks, Recreation and Forestry Department league. Less than a year ago it started a drumline.

"The drumline is for our younger students and our older students — offering them something that they may not get to participate in," Ledbetter said. "Offering them something that they love, where they are safe and being watched."

The activities — and the club is considering expanding to many others — offer incentives for students to become engaged in their education and completing homework.

"We tell them, 'If you want this, you've got to do this first.' Now, they want to get their homework out of the way," Ledbetter said. "They start that critical thinking — the cause-and-effect that they may not have thought about before."

The club is focusing on providing programs that will enhance the children's educations, Ledbetter said.

Staff at the club read to the younger students. Club administrators are teaching staff members to read to the children "with enthusiasm, and gusto and emotion," she said.

More than 500 students are members of the club.

"If you get an education, nobody can take that away from you," she said. "We're working with the school system to help children with reading, which will improve their literacy. We have a retired principal on staff who knows how to communicate with school people and build programs that support schools."

A club program aimed at some of the older students — College to Careers — helps them start to think about the kinds of jobs they want and where they need to start. It teaches them how to balance a checkbook, step by step. Or it can show them opportunities they may not have considered for post-middle or high school.

Lincoln University students share their experiences with the club members.

"It's having that person — who is not that much older than them — tell them about going to school," Ledbetter said. "The kids are getting a chance to look at different options."

Boys & Girls Club students have also taken field trips to State Technical College of Missouri, she said. They've taken field trips to businesses.

Instructors see the children finding choices of which they never dreamed.

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