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The day was bitterly cold for April in Athens, Georgia. I stopped watching the music on-stage to count the number of people on the field. A sizeable crowd had turned up to the first annual Battle Against Poverty Concert, which I had spent months organizing and promoting with other high school and college students in the area.
The first thing anyone notices about Athens is that it bears all the marks of a university town: a lively downtown scene, a large number of middle class families, and a campus buzzing with activity. But in middle school, that perspective changed for me. My parents began investing in rental properties, and over time, I became the manager for six duplexes and two condominiums. My job showed me the less prosperous Athens - the one with a poverty rate almost twice the state and national average at 24%, the one in the fifth poorest county of its size in the entire country. This was the aspect of our university town that most people ignored.
In ninth grade I transferred to a private high school in the adjacent county after receiving an academic scholarship, but I still lived on the poorer east side of town where I knew many families could not afford homes. At school, no one talked or worried about persistent poverty, and I knew that much of the rest of the community was similarly indifferent. They did not know, and so they did not care.
During my junior year, a group called Partners for a Prosperous Athens began. It engaged community members in helping alleviate poverty in the county. Although hundreds of people turned up for the first meeting, I still did not feel that the message had reached enough ears. More people needed to know before community action could take place. What would make them pay attention?
After talking with some friends about this question, we decided on two events. The first was a juried art show for local students with a "Poverty in America" theme. The second was an annual Battle Against Poverty Concert, an eight hour event featuring local musicians and battles between amateur bands. Over thirty high school and college volunteers spent months organizing the events. We did everything from call musicians to solicit donations to put up posters around town. I gave many presentations at school about poverty in Athens and helped make my school one of the most active participants.
The concert on that cold April day was a great success. The mayor, Heidi Davidson, hosted two hours of the concert and spoke with the audience about what they could do to get involved. The chairman of Partners for a Prosperous Athens, the Honorable Judge Steve Jones, also spoke about efforts to improve education. Members of the audience who were not enjoying the music learned about volunteer opportunities at the local homeless shelter and a summer camp for underprivileged children. Our T-shirts sold out, and by the end of the long day we had raised over $2,000 in donations.
The Battle Against Poverty Concert will continue annually until it is no longer needed, and responsibility for its organization has been passed on. I will not be home to organize next year's concert, but my efforts to identify community problems and present solutions for them will continue wherever I go.
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