In this struggling Wisconsin town, families come to terms with needing help

Editor’s Note: In Janesville, Wisconsin, the nation’s oldest operating General Motors assembly plant shut down in the midst of the Great Recession, two days before Christmas of 2008. As many as 9,000 people lost their jobs, and families tumbled out of the middle class in a cascade of disappearing work opportunity across the town of 63,000 and nearby.

Reporter Amy Goldstein spent nearly six years immersed in Janesville, reporting on the families that live there and the difficulties the community faced in the aftermath of the Great Recession. The result is her new book, “Janesville: An American Story.”  In the following excerpt, we meet Kayzia Whiteaker, a high school student at Parker High, who, along with her twin sister, is helping her parents pay the bills after her father lost his job at GM. A social studies teacher named Deri Wahlert notices students such as Kayzia falling out of the middle class and creates  “the Parker Closet,” a place for teenagers — who have never before needed help — to pick up donated food and toiletries, items their families can no longer afford.

Read the excerpt below, and for more on the topic, tune in to tonight’s Making Sen$e report, which airs every Thursday on the PBS NewsHour.

AP Psychology is Kayzia Whiteaker’s seventh-period class, her last of the day. At 3:20 p.m., which is when seventh period ends, Kayzia is about to reach down for her pink mesh backpack so that she can put her book and notebook and folder inside. But as she starts to reach down, she feels, of all awful things, tears sliding down her face.

Kayzia is mortified. She and Alyssa, her twin, are by now juniors at Parker High. Kayzia is a disciplined member of the debate team and, last year as a sophomore, was already a varsity debater who helped Parker get to the state tournament. She is a believer in neatness and self-control. Not a person to cry in public. And at this moment, as she is realizing that she is not making any crying noises — thank goodness! — she knows that she must get these tears to stop.

She gives her tears a talking-to. “This is not the time or the place,” she tells them in her mind. “You just can’t cry in the middle of class.”

The tears keep falling.

She keeps her head down, hoping that the other kids will be too busy with their own backpacks and whatever is on their minds to notice her wet, streaky face, which she knows isn’t really being hidden by her curtain of straight brown hair. No one in her class seems to be paying attention. But her desk is near the front of the room, against the wall and facing the middle. It is, in other words, near Mrs. Venuti’s desk.

Amy Venuti has been teaching social studies at Parker for four years, and she works closely with Deri Wahlert, whose classroom is on the same hall as hers. Amy has just finished today’s lesson on psychological disorders, and she happens to glance over at Kayzia and sees what is going on. She asks Kayzia if she has a minute to stay after class.

She is careful to wait until the other kids have left before she sits down in the desk next to Kayzia’s and, in a quiet, motherly tone, asks what is happening and whether there is any way that she can help.

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Kayzia doesn’t have a clue what to say. In the past three years, she and Alyssa have become experts at hiding what is going on at home. They have become skillful at poking through the clothes at Goodwill to find designer jeans that look as if they got them new. At going along when their friends want to go shopping without drawing attention to the fact that they aren’t buying anything. What’s going on at home is not something to discuss with their friends.

Well, Alyssa’s boyfriend, Justin, knows. He knows that Alyssa appreciates hanging out at his house, because there is less talk about money, and she can ride with him on a four-wheeler and just feel like a teenager for a change. And last year, Kayzia had to tell Ryan, a senior who was her debate partner, when they qualified for state. She had to tell him that she couldn’t go. The team needed two hotel rooms near Ripon College, one for the three girls and one for the two boys, and she had to tell Ryan because she couldn’t afford her share. So he told the coach, and somehow — she still isn’t sure how — it was worked out that Kayzia could pay just a little and still go. And she made sure to be extra helpful, trying to make it up to whoever was paying so she could be there, even though the tournament was in the midst of a blizzard, and the drive, which took longer than the two hours that it should have taken, frightened her.

So they had barely told friends, and if they didn’t feel it was proper to talk to their friends, how could Kayzia possibly tell a teacher?

How could she tell Mrs. Venuti that her dad, Jerad, was now on his third job since GM, after having been out of work for over a year after he was laid off from the plant? Or that she had started to worry that he might lose this one? This third job had seemed lucky at first. He was a guard at the County Jail. It had taken almost a year after he applied for the job to come through, and it probably hadn’t hurt that the dad in a family they are close to, with Kayzia and Alyssa baby-sitting their kids since they were infants, is a Sheriff ’s Department sergeant. Jerad works mostly the second shift. Jerad is grateful for the pay — almost $17 an hour, which isn’t GM pay, but is better than $12 at the Patch Products warehouse, where he would have loved to stay if it had come with health insurance the way the jail job does.

Soon, though, Jerad has a problem with his jail job. Kayzia has been noticing that her dad seems different lately. Nervous. He seems almost scared to go to work. And the problem was getting worse over the summer, when he was putting in as much overtime as he could get, filling in when other correction officers were on vacation, to bring home the extra money. And even though almost $17 an hour is better than at Patch, Kayzia and Alyssa still hear their parents talking a lot about money, at the moments when they think that the girls and their brother, Noah, can’t hear, with Noah getting more into sports and uniforms costing so much, plus the high deductibles on the jail’s health insurance, which means that they have to shell out a lot for Kayzia’s doctors’ appointments to try to figure out why she is having so much pain in her abdomen. And Kayzia knows it’s hard on her parents to have gone from middle class and figuring that GM would last forever, the way it had for her grandfathers, to lower middle class and maybe lower than that. She feels that she should be helping them more, but she isn’t sure what to do.

At school, Kayzia tries to keep her mind on her classes and not on what is happening at home. But in this unit on psychological disorders, the way Mrs. Venuti was talking today about depression and anxiety made Kayzia think of the changes in her dad. And putting two and two together in a way that she never had before, she felt during the last part of class as if a lump was stuck in her throat until she realized that the tears were coming out. In public.

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Mrs. Venuti is being so nice in asking, and Kayzia doesn’t want to be rude, but she doesn’t think it is right to drag her personal life into class. So she waits a minute, trying to figure out what to say. She doesn’t want to say any of it; she knows she has to say something.

“My family situation’s not the greatest right now” is what she comes up with. And right then, she totally loses it, her silent tears becoming large, gulping sobs.

“We can help,” Mrs. Venuti is saying.

“Well, I never received help before. We don’t qualify for that,” Kayzia is telling her. While she is saying that, she is remembering her mom’s eyes looking red after trying and trying to get help from ECHO, the food pantry, where the staff kept telling her mom that her family’s income each month was just a few dollars above the cut-off line.

Mrs. Venuti is telling her that you don’t have to qualify for this kind of help.

She tells Kayzia to take her stuff, so Kayzia picks up her hot pink backpack, while Mrs. Venuti grabs her key chain from the top of her file cabinet. They walk out of the classroom to a closed door, across the hall and two doors down, which Kayzia has never really noticed before. When Mrs. Venuti unlocks the door, Kayzia can’t believe what she sees: shelves filled with jeans and shoes and school supplies and open cabinets stocked with food and body washes and toothpastes. The Parker Closet.

What amazes Kayzia is not just that this room exists. What amazes her most is the avalanche of a realization she is having that, if this room exists behind the door that Mrs. Venuti has unlocked for her, that must mean that other kids at Parker are from families whose situations are not the greatest either.

Hard as it is to imagine, in Janesville where thousands of people have lost jobs and some are still out of work and some, like her dad, are job hopping and not earning enough money, it has never occurred to Kayzia before that what is going on in her family is going on all over town. That is what happens when she and Alyssa have decided that this is not a subject to discuss with friends, and other kids, who used to be middle class, too, have decided the same thing. So, now, Kayzia is overwhelmed by this thought that is hitting her all of a sudden. “There’s more kids like me!”

Amy Venuti has seen this “it’s not just me” astonishment before. Since she started at Parker, she has been helping Deri with the Closet as it has grown from its dozen students the first year to nearly two hundred. Even if she doesn’t do as much as Deri, she has, lately, been introducing a couple of dozen kids to the closet each year. From the kids before Kayzia, she has learned that she is not just offering used jeans and toothpaste. With this offer, she knows, she is wrenching their understanding of their lives into a new and different meaning: as needy. One girl got angry and started to cry, insisting that her family didn’t need help. A boy whose parents were divorcing refused, too, until Amy came up with the idea of telling him that he now had to be the man of the house, and he couldn’t be working because his full-time job was to be in school and to play his sports, so he needed to take some stuff home as a small way that he could take care of his family.

She has to find ways to make it palatable, Amy has learned.

While Amy is seeing Kayzia’s shock as normal, Kayzia is on to her next thought, which is that someone is going to a lot of trouble to provide kids with this help that she never knew existed. People are taking time out of their day to be kind and to help, not just her, but her whole family, and not just her now, but her chances of reaching her goals of becoming a general practitioner and someday being in a position in which she will be able to help someone else.

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It seems to Kayzia too emotional to be thinking all of this, so she doesn’t say it all out loud. She just asks Mrs. Venuti, “Well, where do you get this stuff?”

Donations, her teacher tells her. People in the community who chip in.

Mrs. Venuti is asking what she needs, but Kayzia is still focused on the amazing fact of this secret place in school that no one knows about unless they get into a situation where they need to know. And when she focuses on “needs,” she gets stuck on the fact that she and Alyssa and Noah have been taught at home to be giving people. Giving and independent people. She doesn’t want to take too much.

She picks out Suave shampoo and conditioner. She has learned that it’s cheaper to go without conditioner, but it will be nice to have some. And because it’s good to be a giving person, she takes an Old Spice deodorant for Noah.

When Mrs. Venuti asks whether she needs anything else, Kayzia tells her that this is enough. Before Mrs. Venuti locks the door again, a well-dressed boy Kayzia has never seen before, from a younger grade, ducks in for a minute and gets a few items, too.

She walks alone the few blocks between Parker and home, thinking about this discovery and about Mrs. Venuti telling her not to be afraid to ask if she needs anything else. When she gets home, Alyssa is at work, so Kayzia leaves the shampoo and conditioner and deodorant on the kitchen counter, between the table and the stove. She walks over for her 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. shift, serving up ButterBurgers and frozen custard in a blue Culver’s apron and cap.

When she gets home from work, Alyssa asks, as Kayzia knew she would, where the stuff has come from. Kayzia knows that her sister won’t like the answer. If they need something, they have been taught, they work harder for it. Or they do without.

Kayzia explains about Mrs. Venuti taking her to a room, about their school having something called the Parker Closet. As she is explaining, she knows that, even if they need it, Alyssa will not be easy right away with the idea of accepting help.