To the people who have read SARA BAREFIELD, her situation is so real to them that I have been asked questions that I hope to answer here. I wasn’t a social worker; nor did I know a single mother like Sara. And I have been blessed in that I have never been on welfare or have had the need to apply for food stamps.
I got the idea for SARA BAREFIELD while working as a volunteer in a women’s center in the town where I live. A single woman in her mid-thirties came in for a counseling session; she wanted to go to college to study art history. When I told her that I didn’t know of any aid she could receive other than a Pell grant, she became quite upset. She wanted to know why welfare mothers could get help to go to college and she couldn’t. She’d seen articles about these women in the newspaper. Unfortunately, I had nothing more to offer her unless she took out large student loans that she couldn’t afford.
I started thinking about welfare after she left. If it was as wonderful as she seemed to believe it was, why wasn’t everyone on it? That’s when I started my research. I was curious, I wanted to know more. After I explained my reason for wanting to attend, women on welfare who were in a support group at a local community college allowed me to sit in on their meetings, but there were rules: I wasn’t allowed to talk or take notes. None of the women in the group were pregnant or Sara’s age.
I attended the weekly sessions for approximately two months when I decided to make an appointment with a caseworker to learn more about welfare. At that point I had the idea for Sara’s story—a forty-year-old pregnant woman who had meager savings and was utterly alone—but I wasn’t sure I wanted to write it. The subject didn’t seem compelling.
My appointment with the caseworker was for ten thirty in the morning at the county office building. I arrived ten minutes early and stood at a wide counter, waiting for two women who were talking to each other behind the counter to notice me. Minutes went by: five minutes, seven minutes. The women, who were only a paycheck or two from being out on the street, knew I was there, but they ignored me. I was of no more significance to them than a dust mote that might have been floating by. Ten minutes passed when I’d had enough. “Excuse me!” I said in a voice that demanded attention. The women jumped.
I told them I had an appointment at ten thirty. One of the women called the caseworker, and he arrived soon after. “If you had been five minutes later, I wouldn’t have seen you,” he said after introducing himself. “I have rules that my clients must follow.”
“I was ten minutes early for our appointment,” I said. “The women behind the counter ignored me. Is this how you treat poor people?”
The caseworker was visibly surprised, and I believe there were changes made as a result of my experience. There was also a change when I attended the next support group session. I asked for permission to speak, and I told the women how I had been ignored. When they heard the tone I used when I said, “Excuse me,” their faces lit up. They literally looked overjoyed.
Every woman in the group had been kept waiting, some of them for hours, holding babies and trying to keep toddlers occupied, and each one of them had been afraid to express even the slightest annoyance at having been ignored. That was the moment when I knew I was going to write Sara Barefield’s story.
I have kept my life and my personal experiences out of my fiction with one exception: my experience being ignored in the social services office. Sara was ignored because I was ignored, but Sara wasn’t in the position that I was in. She couldn’t say “Excuse me,” in a tone that demanded attention.