I dealt today with death. Not my family. But then perhaps in this life, the people I know and have known these decades are really my most extended family.
For the quarter century I served as Indian counselor for the Miami Public Schools, the students who came into my office, walked those halls of learning, became my kids. Their teachers were my friends, friends I sometimes had to cajole to understand the individuals who sat in their classrooms needed more than the education they provided, they needed to be valued as the real live persons they were with buckets of emotions stuffed inside those pockets that could leak out at the least provocation.
We came together to find the balance that could make learning important and possible. I always loved learning and found it odd when others were challenged to achieve. Having worked in school districts before coming to Miami, I had not encountered the challenge many of the students and of course our teachers faced here. When I arrived in Miami, the year Tar Creek turned orange, it was before there was a superfund program and certainly years before our own Tar Creek Superfund Site ever was listed on the National Priorities List as the most dangerous site in the nation. It would be 15 years later before EPA recognized the site was actually putting our children at risk of lead poisoning. And then it took a few years to get a plan established and to begin doing something about reducing lead exposure to our children.
Lead was making our children seem so different to me from the previous schools I had worked. The teachers in the Miami school district and in the neighboring towns had become the most challenged teachers and because they were, they became great teachers. They had to learn how to help children learn who were distracted, who had difficulty sequencing, who were found to have attention deficits and some who were visibly hyperactive. Some had learning difficulties that required special services, but our teachers toughed it out, so many of the children in 7th and 8th grade had never been referred for special services until they reached us.
Lead can cause irreversible neurological damage. It can cause ADD and ADHD, it can cause the loss of IQ. Our children were harmed. Not by anyone. But by the simple act of living this close to a superfund site with lead as the contaminant of concern. There was general thinking that THAT would only be happening at Picher, it could only be happening over THERE. But there was right here in Miami, Commerce, Quapaw school districts.
At the time EPA was alerted to be concerned about children being lead poisoned, children had already been lead poisoned for generations. National trends in lead poisoning put the national average at 2 percent of the children in the US were lead poisoned. But right here in Miami, 8 per cent of our children were found to be lead poisoned. And higher percentages in the other towns north of us.
EPA had drawn a box and Miami was not included in the "fix" they planned. It took clandestine actions by a newly formed LEAD Agency and high school students collecting soil samples from our school playgrounds and parks to get EPA to extend cleanup for our children.
As a counselor, I got to sit with these young people who struggled to learn and how debilitating it felt for them, how inadequate they felt about themselves when it was so hard to keep up with their friends in classwork. I saw what you saw with your own children or their friends when they wept with the loss of their own possibilities. Not every child was affected intellectually by their exposure to lead, but lead can go to sleep in your body as it is stored in your bones, mistaken for calcium. Then pulled out by pregnant moms if the baby needs calcium, exposing that child to lead even before they are born. Or for our breast feeding moms whose body load of lead was passed on their children that way. We learned that this happened with our babies with the research done through the MATCH Project.
Knowing this has kept EPA here, working on cleaning up residential yards now throughout all of Ottawa County, digging up lead contaminated soils out of yards, parks, playgrounds. Places your children played are better now and safer. Not all of the parks have been done yet, and certainly not every resident has called the hotline to get their yard tested for lead yet. (1-800-522-0206)
I reconnected with a couple of the young people who became "my kids" and their heartaches today. Generations apart, but still in my heart, learning about the rest of their lives. The joys of marriage and grandchildren and then the devastating loss of a spouse by COVID19, who was also one of my "kids." While another was a mother hurting with layers of grief.
There are all sorts of loss that result in feeling deep grief. I am feeling it and hoping if you are we hold each other closer so we get through this.
Respectfully Submitted ~ Rebecca Jim