By Patricia Jones, Task Force On Poverty
Karen Boysen - the woman with the big smile who helped you find something at Carter’s Hardware, the woman with the crazy sense of humor who came to the Titanic party at the Knight Museum dressed as the iceberg - shared her story about the length of time she and her family lived in poverty after her husband had his first heart attack in 1997.
Karen grew up in Greeley, and her father was a college professor. After she married, she and Bill moved to Omaha, where Bill and his brother were involved in a scrap metal business. In the early 90’s they moved to Sterling for a job that didn’t pan out. Bill then applied for a job as a ranch hand, and the Boysens moved onto the Messersmith Ranch.
Working as a ranch hand had lots of advantages, including a truck for Bill to drive, a house with utilities paid and lots of space for children to run free, close friends at the country school. Bill loved the work, the wide open spaces, caring for newborn calves. He and Karen thought they would be there forever.
The Flight for Life helicopter transported Bill to a Denver hospital after his heart attack in November, 1997, where he remained for a week. But with no insurance, the helicopter wasn’t covered, the hospital stay wasn’t covered, and follow-up care was limited. Even with some doctors donating their services, the Boysens are still paying off the bills from this and two subsequent heart attacks.
Karen said her children were scared to death as their father was rushed to the hospital. Flight for Life was called, and Karen watched Bill being loaded into the helicopter, listened to the noise of the blades, and watched the helicopter lift into the sky and disappear. Karen drove back home, loaded the family’s van and dropped the kids off at her parents in Greeley so she could go to Denver to stay at the hospital with her husband. And things kept getting worse.
The Colorado doctors sent Bill home after a week with some medication. They wouldn’t provide more care since the family had no insurance and had already run up exorbitant bills. The hospital’s social workers recommended to Karen that she apply for assistance with Nebraska’s Health and Human Services office, knowing that the family would need welfare to survive.
The doctors told Bill, age 45, that he would never be able to work again, and the Boysens had to leave the ranch they had grown to love. Neighbors offered them a small house being used for storage until they could find somewhere else to live. The three children, ranging in age from five to thirteen, had to change schools mid-year where they knew nobody and had no friends. Christmas vacation was spent packing everything they owned and not knowing where they would land. The children thought they would have to live in the family’s van.
Karen bought a paper to check the want ads for jobs and places to rent. Nothing in her background had prepared her for the situation her family was in. Luckily she saw an ad from the Alliance Housing Authority in that same paper, talked to the people in charge, and the family moved into a duplex on Big Horn Avenue. Karen went to Health and Human Services to apply for assistance, and the family was able to receive food stamps and Medicaid.
With Bill no longer able to work, Karen applied for a job at Hatch’s and went to work. But being an employed adult meant that her family no longer qualified for food stamps. Her income was barely enough to cover Bill’s medication. It took two years for Social Security to approve Bill for disability payments.
Karen went back to Health and Human Services to talk about whether they would help cover expenses as she trained to become a Certified Nursing Associate which she heard paid just a little more. Her caseworker said, “I just can’t imagine you emptying bedpans for the rest of your life” and instead recommended that Karen go to Nebraska Job Service (now the Department of Labor office) for aptitude testing. Karen’s results caused them to recommend that she take classes at WNCC, and the family went back on welfare. The college allowed Karen to transfer in freshman-year credits earned before she was married. After one year she had earned an Associates Degree.
With her new degree, Karen applied for and received a position working to help people as Health and Human Services had helped her, first in Scottsbluff teaching people how to apply for jobs and interview, then as a Resource Developer for foster care, working for HHS in Alliance, the agency that had provided so much assistance when her family most needed it.
Even with a good paying job and a second job on weekends, Karen’s family had to borrow money from family or from the credit union to make ends meet. Shopping for clothes meant taking the kids to the Mission Store or hitting the clearance racks at Kmart. There was no going out to eat.
Living in poverty was incredibly stressful for the Boysen family. Karen is a person who jumps up and moves on, but she could see the toll that was being taken on her husband and children. Getting assistance meant reporting to different agencies monthly, filling out paperwork, asking repeatedly for help, and a lot of waiting. But the help they received meant everything. They had a place to live and food to eat; they could survive.
Years have gone by, and Karen is now retired and working part-time at Carter's Home, Hardware and Appliances. She and husband Bill live on Social Security and have a comfortable life. Karen will always be grateful for the assistance her family received from many different agencies here in Alliance. Karen says, “Thank you for letting me tell my story and I sincerely hope it helps and encourages someone else who is struggling to survive. If you need help, please ask.”
PS from Pastor Tim Stadem, St. John’s Lutheran Church, Alliance, NE, Chairman of the Task Force on Poverty: "Experiences with poverty are various; in some instances, even polarizing for communities. Perhaps you see it every day; some have what is called: Lived Experience—they know what it looks like, feels like...moment by moment. Bridges Out of Poverty is an upcoming day-long conference (June 11, 2020, at Alliance High School Commons) with a global reputation for entering respectfully into this Lived Experience. Please don’t miss this opportunity to listen, explore, consider ways of being a part of change. This training has helped shape the way I see my neighbor."