My boss gave me the opportunity to travel anywhere in the country to look for stories that "we're not telling." It was as assignment to explore how hard-working folks are struggling to survive. We're calling it "The Other America."
I decided to make Mississippi the first stop on my journey because there is a higher percentage of people living below the poverty line in this state than any other in the U.S. Once I landed in Jackson, I headed straight for the Mississippi River Delta – specifically Greenville – because it is one of the poorer parts of this state. The number of people living below the poverty line in Washington County, Miss., is roughly two and a half times the national average.
But where Greenville may lack in economic prosperity, it overflows in richness of culture and local hospitality.
I'd never been to this part of the United States and didn't know anyone in Greenville, Miss. I knew I'd need a guide. The folks at a food bank in Jackson put me in touch with Greenville resident, Janette Garner. Janette took me under her wing and spent several days with me introducing me to people around town. Janette is a volunteer with St. Vincent De Paul's local food pantry which is where I met Debra Locket, the mother of Jasmine Lafayette, who is featured in our piece.
Debra has been disabled for more than a decade and scrapes by with the help of a few government benefit checks. She receives a disability check and her daughter Jasmine gets a monthly "death benefit" check because her father passed away. Together the benefit checks total less than a thousand dollars a month and Debra and Jasmine count on the charity of people like Janette Garner and the pantry at St. Vincent de Paul's for clothing, food and basic supplies.
I was impressed to learn that despite all of the challenges of daily life, Jasmine was in the running to be class valedictorian at O'Bannon High School. (After our taping – it was announced that she was indeed the valedictorian).
The fact that Jasmine could juggle all of the struggles of daily life - including regularly leaving school to take care of her mom - and still excel at school was quite impressive. I thought it was a story of overcoming obstacles - a good one to tell.
I first met Jasmine at her high school. She was leaving early that day to help her mother. We stood in the parking lot of her school as she pulled together some loose change to try to get enough to buy a gallon of gasoline for the car. She told me, "It is hard to smile all the time because when you go home it's something else. You know, your mom may not be feeling well or, you see her there literally like a clown, juggling – you've got the gas, you've got the gas ball, you got the light ball you got the water ball – you don't know which one is going to be cut off."
Every day Jasmine and her mother are forced to make difficult choices. Sometimes it's as simple as can they afford to put gas in the car, heat the house, or put food on the table. They're thankful for any assistance they get.
Jasmine plans to go to college and hopes that someday life won't be as difficult as it is today.
"I know that whenever God brings his blessings along, I know that I will be able to be appreciative for it," Jasmine says.
If you would like to offer help to those in our "The Other America" series, please e-mail your request here.