BY JEN OLENICZAK BROWN
Winston-Salem has one of the worst child-poverty rates in the country.
Did you know that? I didn’t. Winston-Salem has higher numbers than Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Dallas – ranking 20th in the nation in a 2019 report.
Now think about the pandemic, and the effects on these rates – unfortunately, it’s probably going to be worse when we get the latest census reports – and we need to not just look at the statistics and sigh or be sad. We need to get active, which is what the Junior League of Winston-Salem (JLWS) is doing with the second Little Black Dress Initiative (LBDI).
2020 launched the inaugural LBDI for JLWS – 56 members wore the same black outfit for five days to start conversations and raise awareness about poverty. These in-person and on social media conversations not only illuminated some of the issues right here in Winston-Salem, but they also connected the community with how poverty restricts choices and opportunities. The advocates raised $25,668 from over 440 donors for programming – and are doing it again this year, with a few twists.
This year, LBDI will take place February 22nd – 26th. The JLWS is using ‘dress’ as a verb – members will “dress” themselves, their social media, a profile photo, or profile with a black aspect or accent to focus on starting a conversation. “Not only is this the year in which we have had to rethink advocate participation due to COVID, but it’s also an opportunity for us to be more inclusive than the term ‘dress’ might belie,” said chair Stephanie Flores de Valgaz. “We are excited about the creative avenues our advocates will take in using social media to inform the community about issues that surround poverty as well as inviting fellow community members to support the work we do to address these challenges.”
The program helps with the JLWS initiatives like the live puppet show, You Can Always Talk to Someone. The show has been presented since 1986 to all third graders in the Winston-Salem Forsyth County Schools (WSFCS) and addresses the issues of child abuse, neglect, and Internet safety. It empowers children with the knowledge of what to do in these situations and encourages students to talk with a trusted adult – and last year, some funds from LBDI allowed the entire show to be translated to Spanish. “We are all aware of the additional strains that the pandemic has placed on the physical and mental well-being of children and families in our community,” said Liz Noland, JLWS President-Elect who also works as a school librarian in WSFCS. “Because our volunteer members have been unable to present the Puppet Show since school closed last March, we know that there will be an increased need for this information to be communicated to 3rd grade students when they return to school in person, as well as 4th graders who missed the Puppet Show last spring. LBDI will be instrumental in providing support to our organization as we train additional volunteers and work closely with our partners in the office of school social workers to ensure we have reached every child who needs to hear this message.”
LBDI also helps programs like Strong Women, Strong Families, which strives to improve the health profile of the community beginning with various initiatives concentrating on Kimberley Park Elementary School. Events focus on health and nutrition and last year, provided Instant Pots for members of the Kimberley Park Elementary School community. “Our valued partnership with Kimberley Park on the Strong Women, Strong Families project is one that the JLWS hopes to build upon when our members are able to return to schools to volunteer,” said Liz. “We anticipate there will be immediate needs for Kimberley Park families already facing challenges pre-pandemic, and that we can help fill in the upcoming year at SWSF health fairs or through alternative means, thanks to funds raised from the LBDI.”
While these programs won’t solve the poverty crisis on their own, they are making things happen. Imagine if we all not only built our awareness about what our neighbors are experiencing, but also committed more than one week.
Because of COVID, the week of events will look different than last year: there will be an outdoor ride with CYCLEBAR, a PJs and Cocktails digital evening, Instagram takeovers and interviews with partners, as well as a daily raffle. “As humans, we are wired to be in community together, yet we are missing so much of our typical social interaction this year,” said Stephanie. “Our hope is to create fun, safe, and engaging opportunities to share an experience while also contributing to social change.”