CINCINNATI — A lot of people are talking about the persistent problem of childhood poverty in our region.
Ben Klayer lived it.
Klayer, a 21-year-old Cincinnati State student, grew up on Francis Avenue in West Price Hill. His own family always had what it needed, he said.
But they had plenty of neighbors living in poverty, and that has given Klayer an insider's perspective on what life is like for our region's poor kids.
Klayer is sharing that perspective in his new memoir called "No Outlet."
"This book is about me and my best friend growing up together on the same street," Klayer told me. "He moved away in 2013. And when that happened, I kind of started thinking we had all these experiences together."
The memoir is his second book. The first was a collection of poems called "Over the Hills: A Poetry Collection." The point of this memoir is to chronicle the times he and his friend shared — both the joys of winning a three-legged race and the horrors of witnessing child abuse.
"I know how desperate people can be and how their living circumstances cause them to do stuff," Klayer said. "That just gave me a different understanding of the world."
Sandie Goodin's East Price Hill-based Goodin God's I's Publishing — or GGI Publishing — is publishing Klayer's book. Goodin said Klayer contacted her after hearing about a book she is preparing called "Price Hill Scripted Souls" — a collection of community artwork, photographer, poetry and short stories by residents of the Price Hill communities.
"When I put the word out for the project, I had people calling me from the West Side saying, 'Can you publish my book?' That's how it got started," Goodin said.
She was impressed with the way Klayer's memoir describes some of the difficult conditions that surrounded him — and still surrounds other kids — growing up, she said.
"Being raised in a very structured Catholic family and then having drug dealers living next door to you — it's very hard to live with," Goodin said. "And him overcoming that and rising above it is really a positive note for the readers."
Wearing the Same Clothes for Days
Klayer's best friend, David, lived with his mom and her boyfriend. He moved in with them after his dad had died.
The mom had a job at a gas station, Klayer said, and she worked hard but didn't make much money. After a while, Klayer figured out that the mom's boyfriend was a drug dealer.
The man never tried to get Klayer or his friend involved in drugs, Klayer said. But he had all kinds of customers who would come to the house, go into another room and shut the door and then leave quickly.
"He would try to keep it a secret, but we all knew," Klayer said.
That wasn't the worst of it, though.
The most heartbreaking house on the street was a place where a 5-year-old boy lived. Klayer was 16 or 17 at the time, he said.
"His family was really bad. Both of his parents were drug addicts, and they did not take care of him at all," Klayer said. "They would just let him wander around unsupervised."
Klayer told me about a time that he saw the little boy walking around by himself at midnight.
"He would come over to our house sometimes, crying, saying he didn't want to live there anymore and asked if he could live with us instead," Klayer said. "He would sometimes wear the same clothes for days and days."
It's the kind of sad scene that plays out in far too many neighborhoods across our region.
And it inspired Klayer — not only to write his memoir — but also in what he's studying at Cincinnati State.
Inspired to Help Others
Klayer is in his second year at Cincinnati State and then hopes to go to University of Cincinnati and get the education he needs to become an English teacher.
"Growing up, I saw a lot of kids who all kind of looked up to me as a brother or something. As a teenager, I would try to keep them safe, keep them out of trouble and be there for them," Klayer said. "I love that. And I'm good at that, I guess, so that's what made me want to become a teacher."
I hope that all works out the way Klayer plans.
Surely the thousands of poor children who attend our region's schools would benefit from having a teacher like Klayer, who understands where they have been and what their struggles are day-to-day.
He doesn't hold beliefs about people living in poverty based on stereotypes. He has beliefs based on his experience.
"People have the misunderstanding that poor people don't work, but I don't think that's true," Klayer said. "My best friend's mom — she worked really hard at her job even though it wasn't a high-paying job."
Goodin said she hopes people are inspired by how hard Klayer has worked, too.
"He lived among poverty and went on to further his education, write this book and also get out there and display his work," she said. "He's a very dedicated, very intelligent young man."
If all goes as Klayer plans, he will someday be sharing those gifts with kids who could use another caring adult in their lives.
To purchase a copy of "Over the Hills: A Poetry Collection," click here.
GGI Publishing is seeking submissions for the book "Price Hill Scripted Souls" until March 31. For information about that project or to submit a photo, poem, short story or piece of artwork for consideration, click here or go to www.ggipublishing.webs.com.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO.