Barbara Walsh sat in the bathtub as she interviewed Brittany, a 12-year-old girl who lived with her mom and sister in a Portland motel room.
As she interacted with her Polly Pocket dolls, Brittany told Walsh that sometimes, she plays in the bathroom. At other times, she goes in there to read. Or she brings in her pillow and takes a nap. She has nowhere else to go.
"That bathroom was her quiet little space," Walsh told a crowd of 30 at MacMillian House on Wednesday. Walsh, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, came to the College to talk about her Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram five-day series "Castaway Children: The Hidden Faces of Poverty" as part of kNOw Poverty Week.
For seven months, Walsh traveled the state, spoke to more than 700 people, and reviewed over 4,000 pages of documents. Her mission: find and tell the stories of children whose families were struggling to make ends meet.
"If you talk about poverty just through numbers, no one cares," she said. Instead, she said, we need stories. "That's the only away anyone cares."
Walsh discovered the story of Brittany, whose only refuge was the motel bathroom. Brittany had a house once, but her mother broke her leg and lost her job. The furnace broke down, and their home was just too cold. So they moved out?and lived in Portland-area motels for 160 days.
And then there was Jillian. She lived in a trailer in Washington County, which is Maine's poorest. When Jillian was 15, her mother dropped her off at a family friend's house and left town. Her mother never came back.
Jillian continued to live with the family friend, who struggled financially. When Walsh heard of Jillian's story, she brought her back to the family trailer in Eastport. The landlord had burned it down because of the stench of decaying pets.
As Jillian searched through the rubble for anything salvageable, Walsh watched.
"I'll never forget her standing on this heap that was her home," she said.
Walsh videotaped the scene. She said a tape helps her when she writes an article?she can pick up the little details that make the story more engaging to the reader.
And readers were engaged. In the weeks after the series was printed, Walsh received more than 300 phone calls and emails from readers, asking how they could help.
Readers told Walsh that the stories of individual children haunted them. "It's almost like a character in a book," she said.
Walsh's profile of a Sherman family touched an attorney and two realtors from the Portland area. The family trailer's aluminum wiring had caught fire twice. The family didn't have the money to fix it, and it couldn't receive state or federal assistance because of the age of the trailer and the parents' poor credit line.
"I pray every night I don't die in a fire," the family's 13-year-old daughter told Walsh.
After the lawyer and realtors saw the story and accompanying picture of the girl praying, they formed a group to raise money. Fourteen days later, they had nearly enough money to buy a new trailer.
Altogether, readers responding to Walsh's series donated more than $75,000 to families and charitable groups in the two weeks after publication.
Walsh stressed that while it is important to work for wide-scale change?many of these problems would have been avoided if so many northern Maine factories had not closed down?smaller projects are most important and most doable. In her series, she wrote that a Somerville principal told her that his students cried when they broke a pencil because they knew they did not have another one.
A South Portland businessman couldn't sleep after reading that story?so he got out of bed and sent 500 pencils to the school. A nine-year-old Scarborough girl read about another school and set up a school-supply donation box in her classroom.
"You never know what one thing will do for one family or one kid," she said. "Just to give one kid hope."
Walsh began her reporting by looking at rural poverty statistics?statistics that show that the southern and northern parts of Maine are facing drastically different challenges. Her stories, though, focused mostly on individual people.
After all, she told the Orient that her reason for embarking on the series was "to show the real effects."
That's what Becky Bogdanovitch '04, who works in the Community Service Resource Center as part of the Americorps*VISTA program, wanted to do when she began developing kNOw Poverty Week with other students and staff last September.
Bogdanovitch said organizers wanted to make sure events were focused on problems of poverty in Maine "so people can see it is happening right here in their backyards."
The week's events continue today with a Common Hour lecture titled, "How Did The Working Poor Get So Poor?" by Dr. J. Larry Brown, Director of the National Center on Hunger and Poverty.
Walsh, who works on special projects for the Press Herald, said someday she might go back and revisit some of the families she wrote about. Readers often ask for updates. Until then, she hopes that people in southern Maine will see that the "two Maines" are actually a single state?"our state."
"I hope that you folks are inspired to do something," she said.