Henry (and no, that’s not his real name) is a friend of mine. He was born in Charleston. In the language of the folks at the U.S. Census, there are about a million people in the Palmetto state that roughly fit in the same demographic.
Henry has never even seen the Statehouse in Columbia.
If it were in my power, I would put a special chair up in the dais in the chambers of the state House and Senate, and I’d put Henry in that chair, so that every time the politicians started talking about “the people of South Carolina,” they would look up and see him – and maybe, occasionally, think about the impact their actions are going to have on Henry and his family and the many others just like him.
I first met Henry just before Christmas in 1980 when he was a 4-year-old. My wife and I took a star off of the Christmas-giving tree at our church with his name and a list of a few things he wanted for Christmas. We got him some clothes, a couple of toys and a football. We delivered the packages to him, met his mother and learned that he also had a little brother and a cousin living in the same apartment. No one had taken their stars, so we got them some things, too.
The day before Christmas, we got a call from Henry’s social worker saying that Henry and the others needed a little more help. It seems that their mother had just beaten her boyfriend to death with a baseball bat – while the children watched. She was now in jail and the children had no place to go. Finally, we located their grandmother and persuaded her to take them in. She didn’t have much, but she loved them and raised them the best she could.
Over the years, we stayed connected. We checked on the boys from time to time; we helped when we could; and we always returned to our home and life a few blocks and another world away.
The State of South Carolina was connected as well. Henry was diagnosed by the social service agencies as having mental and emotional problems. His IQ was in the 70s. But God had blessed him with a gentle, optimistic and caring spirit. He stayed in school as long as they let him, and eventually, he got a minimum-wage job working construction.
I saw Henry and the boys less frequently as they grew older. When I needed help around the house with odd jobs, I’d find them and they would help. When they got behind on their rent or had similar problems, they would find me and I would help.
Henry got into a little trouble here and there, but it was mostly due to others taking advantage of his limited judgment and good nature. He had a son, but lost regular contact with him for a time after the boy’s mother moved out. Once, an overworked social worker lost his paperwork and, as a result, Henry spent eight months in the county jail for not paying his child support – which he had, in fact, paid.
When it was suggested that he should sue someone, he demurred, saying, “We all make mistakes some time.”
A few years ago, Henry got married. After a long legal fight by a wonderful, caring, pro bono attorney, he regained custody of his son. He lives in the public housing project just down the street from my house with his wife and their three young kids. He has a job as a dishwasher for $10 an hour and is working on his GED. His wife is working on an associate’s degree at the local tech school.
Just surviving each day is a real struggle, but he does not give up.
The recent gift of an old second-hand computer was almost more than he could handle. “Now my children can learn something like those other kids,” he said, choking back tears.
He can’t even imagine working at some place like Boeing. A regular kitchen job with a few benefits at the Medical University Hospital would be a dream come true.
Henry often has to borrow a few bucks to just feed his family because, when he started working longer hours, he lost his food stamp benefits. He is not in good health, but he has Medicaid; he’s missing several teeth because it doesn’t cover dental care. They share a car with a neighbor but they try not to drive much, as they can’t afford car insurance and are scared to death they will have an accident and will lose what little they have.
Once or twice a month, Henry brings me some paper that he’s received from a government agency or a utility or a phone company or the like. And they’re always the same – something he does not understand, from someone he does not know, telling him he must do or pay something he cannot do or pay.
His questions always come with the same addendum: “I just want to do what’s right.”
I have never known either Henry or his wife to smoke, drink, do drugs or play the lottery. Taking the kids to McDonald’s is a rare and special treat. They go to church most every Sunday and they always put something in the plate for “those that are not as lucky as we are.”
Henry is not a demographic, a stereotype or an interest group. He is my friend.
My simple question for our governor and legislators is this: “How did what you did today make life easier or the future brighter for my friend Henry and his family?”
Maybe, if he were sitting in a chair up front, the politicians could explain it to him.
Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and is president of the S.C. New Democrats, an independent reform group founded by former Gov. Richard Riley to bring change and reform to government and politics.