Portraits of Poverty

January 13, 2000

The exhibit

Portraits of Poverty: Do You See What I See?

Through Saturday, Feb. 12

Washington County Arts Council Gallery, 41 S. Potomac St., Hagerstown; 301-791-3132

Hours: Tuesdays to Fridays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

By KATE COLEMAN / Staff Writer

The American economy is booming. Last year's unemployment rate averaged 4.2 percent, the lowest it has been for 30 years. But not everybody is living on "easy street."

Poverty is a reality for many, and that reality is hard.

cont. from lifestyle

"Portraits of Poverty: Do You See What I See?" is an exhibit of photographs about poverty. It also includes the stories of seven people who are poor or who have been poor. It will be on display at Washington County Arts Council Gallery through Saturday, Feb. 12. The opening reception is today from 2 to 4 p.m.


The exhibit is presented by Center for Poverty Solutions, a nonprofit, charitable organization dedicated to eliminating the causes of poverty. It was formed in 1998 when two community agencies, Maryland Food Committee and Action for the Homeless, merged.

The exhibit is an attempt to address people's misunderstanding of poverty and myths about those who experience it, according to the exhibit catalog. Some of the 31 photos were taken by the subjects themselves. The people share their ideas about poverty, its causes and solutions. They share their lives.

Poverty is close to home. Although there has been welfare reform in Maryland, poverty hasn't gone away, says Carolyn Moller, community organizer in the Western Maryland office of Center for Poverty Solutions.

The exhibit is designed to get people thinking about what it means to be poor in Maryland and to encourage them to learn more.

Don Nisewarner Jr. of Hagerstown has two photographs in the exhibit. His subjects reflect his desire to focus on the positive.

"I was trying to show that there is help out there," he says.

One photo shows the entrance of the Community Action Council office, the agency that helped Nisewarner and his wife, Maria, purchase the home they have lived in for nearly two years.

"This is our home. We're not renting," Don Nisewarner, 41, says.

"It's a dream come true for us," says Maria Nisewarner.

Don Nisewarner's other exhibit photo shows benches in the alley at Hagerstown's Community Free Clinic, which he calls a "jewel." There are good, caring people at the clinic, he says. They have helped him and others who don't have health insurance or sufficient coverage to meet their needs. If people don't have the money to buy medication, prescriptions are just a piece of paper, Nisewarner says.

It was health problems that put the Nisewarner family into what Don Nisewarner calls a cycle of poverty. "It's hard to get out once you get in," says Maria Nisewarner, 39.

Don Nisewarner's severe diabetes was diagnosed when he was 6 years old. He had a heart attack at age 30. He has been diagnosed with depression. And although he wanted to work - and still would love to - he is unable to work and has been unemployed since 1992. Medicare covers most of his medical costs, but not medications or supplies, which include the pump that maintains a healthy insulin level.

In 1992, the Nisewarners' second child, Donald, was born. The birth of the 12-pound baby was difficult, and Donald and his mother had injuries that required surgical repair. Maria Nisewarner was out of work for three years. Medical debts reached $45,000.

The couple separated. Maria Nisewarner and the children, Donald and his sister, Anna, now 13, lived in public housing for a year and a half. She saw a poster with information about affordable housing and followed up on the lead.

The Nisewarners reunited and took advantage of Community Action Council's Family Self-Sufficiency program, which helped them set financial and life goals that enabled them to purchase their three-bedroom home in Community Estates in Hagerstown.

"We never gave up and never gave up," Maria Nisewarner reiterates. She credits her family's faith with helping. "We just kept believing we'd get a home, we'd get out of debt."

Maria, a licensed cosmetologist, works part time at a Hagerstown hair salon and drives to Baltimore once a week for the one remaining class she needs for her Maryland teacher certification. Don Nisewarner was president of the local Head Start group for two years and is a volunteer at Salem Avenue Elementary School.

Financial advisers tell people to have a certain amount of money in their savings account, to be prepared for emergencies, Maria Nisewarner says. If you're poor, savings are a luxury, Don Nisewarner says. "You can have savings, or you can eat."

Being poor could happen to anyone. "Very easily," Maria Nisewarner says.

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