COLUMBIA, MO. — At 3 p.m. each weekday, the metal screen door at Granny’s House starts slamming. Children run in and out of the house, pausing briefly for a snack or a hug before heading back out to climb on the jungle gym in the backyard or rush upstairs to use the computer.
Granny’s House is a non-profit afterschool program that serves children living in the public housing development in downtown Columbia.
Pam Smith Ingram founded the program in May 2001 and works with a team of volunteers to provide a safe, secure place for children to spend their afternoons when school lets out.
With a mess of curly black hair, sparkling brown eyes hidden behind frameless glasses, stylish tan skinny jeans and a collection of bracelets that clink when she excitedly waves her hands as she speaks, Ingram doesn’t exactly resemble a 63-year-old Granny.
She spends her afternoons working with about 60 children from families with limited incomes in Columbia. The kids call her “Granny” and her office is decorated with photos of children, ranging in age from toddlers to teens, who have come to Granny’s House over the years.
As soon as the doors to the house open, Ingram gets busy. She offers advice and encouragement, helps with homework assignments and referees inevitable quarrels among the children while they play.
When a young girl comes into the house from the backyard with tears running down her cheeks, Ingram immediately bends down to hug her and see what the problem is. Through her tears, the girl explains that she was accidentally hit by an older child on the playground, so Ingram takes up the task of investigating the situation and smoothing things out between the two friends.
For Ingram, the goal of Granny’s House is simple.
“We really want Granny’s House to be a place where all the gifts God has given a child have a place,” Ingram said. The volunteers at the program want them to realize they aren’t victims of their circumstances, she said.
Situated in the heart of the public housing development on Trinity Place near North Providence Road, Granny’s House strives to show children what life outside the housing development is like through mentor programs and activities, Ingram said.
Poverty is a reality for many of the children living in the area where Granny’s House is located. Nine percent of the rental market in Columbia is composed of assisted housing properties, according to the Columbia Housing Authority, which works to help provide affordable housing for people living on low and moderate incomes.
Nearly a quarter of individuals and 17.7 percent of children under age 18 in Columbia lived below poverty level between 2008 and 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Childhood poverty in Columbia is about five percent lower than the national average, according to the American Community Survey.
For a family of four with two children under age 18, the average national poverty threshold was $23,453 in 2012 and 2013, according to the Census Bureau.
The difficulty of ensuring there’s enough food on the table each week is often a byproduct of poverty. Nearly 17 percent of Missouri households lived in a state of food insecurity, meaning they lacked the resources to buy sufficient food, between 2010 and 2012, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Last year, an individual living in Missouri received an average of $128.04 each month in food stamp benefits. For families who are considered food insecure, that amount may be all they have to pay for food throughout the month.
“There are children who, if they don’t eat at Granny’s House, don’t go home to anything,” said Lee-Sha Tyler, a mother of five children who have participated in the Granny’s House program. “That may be the only meal they have.”
Ingram’s passion for helping children growing up in families with low incomes is a product of her own childhood. Before she became Granny to the 60 children, she was a child living in poverty just like them.
A personal experience of food insecurity
Growing up in Kansas City, Mo. in the 1950s, Ingram lived in a public housing development called T.B. Watkins. She was born into a family she says was the “working poor.”
Her mother and father both worked various jobs to keep the family afloat. Ingram’s mother was a seamstress and hairdresser, operating small businesses out of the family’s home. Ingram’s father worked as a maintenance man and gave everything he had to provide for his family, Ingram said.
“Dad could do everything,” she said. “He could build your house or sweep your parking lots. His motto in life was: There’s always an honest job for an honest man.”
Despite her parents’ best efforts, Ingram remembers seasons in her life when she and her three sisters went to bed hungry.
“My mom and dad worked two or three jobs to just supply the basics like food and shelter,” said Carla Willis, Ingram’s youngest sister. “Growing up, I always felt like we were poor.”
Ingram distinctly remembers a time when all the family had in the pantry was a can of hominy, a food made from kernels of corn, and corn meal. Her mother set the dinner table like usual, with plates, silverware and napkins, but instead of meat and vegetables, she served only the hominy and corn pancakes.
Her mother used skills as a seamstress to re-upholster furniture her father found in a dumpster. She made drapes to match. The family had the prettiest house in the projects, Ingram said.
“We lived in public housing, but my mother had these uppity ways,” Ingram said. “She wanted us to be ladies and had this vision for our lives. She saw what the other girls in the projects were doing and she didn’t want that for us.”
After a brief period living in a home outside the public housing development, Ingram’s family moved back when she was in junior high. Her father’s attempt at starting a small business failed and the family’s income declined. The Smiths remained in the housing development until she was a senior in high school.
“Moving back to the projects was very humiliating for all of us,” Ingram said. “It represented us as a family going backward.” Watching her parents go through the experience was painful, she said.
No food stamps or safety net
During the time Ingram’s family lived in public housing, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), known commonly as food stamps, did not exist. The food stamp program officially began with a pilot program in 1961.
Without food stamps, the family of six relied on commodity foods such as peanut butter, cheese and canned vegetables, from the government surplus program. The Smiths also received food about three times a year from the local Catholic church they attended, Ingram said.
After Ingram graduated from high school, she became the first person in her family to attend college, with the help of federal grants and loans. She spent her first year at the University of Missouri in Kansas City before transferring to MU in Columbia in January 1972. Once settled in Columbia, Ingram experienced more severe hunger than she had growing up.
“Throughout college, I never had enough money for food,” she said. “I pretty much lived on peanut butter. There were seasons when I had food and seasons when I didn’t.”
During her final semester as a student in the MU School of Journalism, Ingram got behind on her rent payments and didn’t have the money to purchase textbooks or meals. Her father borrowed money from his boss to send to his daughter. Ingram felt bad because she knew it was taking food off her family’s table, she said.
Paying it forward
Pam Ingram married Ellis Ingram the year after graduating from MU in 1975 and the couple settled in Columbia. She worked as an eighth grade English and reading teacher at Christian Fellowship School for four years and then stayed home to raise her four children.
After becoming a Christian in the late 1970s, Ingram realized a need in the community that she felt she could do something about.
While conducting a door-to-door prayer ministry with her friend Jane Williams, Ingram saw many children living in public housing who didn’t have anywhere to spend their time after school. She felt compelled to help children living in poverty like she had as a child.
The idea to start a program called Granny’s House began to take root in Ingram’s mind. She began planning and plotting with a group of volunteers in the late 1990s, she said.
“The whole idea of children who feel isolated, cut off or disadvantaged really strikes a chord with Pam and taps a deep well of compassion in her,” Williams said. “She has a real gift of seeing talent or a gift in any kid and drawing that out. She is truly a treasure hunter.”
Throughout the planning stages of Granny’s House, Ingram was intentional about choosing the physical location for the program. She was determined to be a part of the neighborhood where the children lived so that Granny’s House remained a presence in the community, her husband said.
Ingram believes in teaching the children who come to Granny’s House that they each have unique gifts. She and the other Granny’s House staff have devised a way to teach children that they can provide for themselves through hard work.
The concept works like this: If a child has a goal, say to attend a summer camp, Ingram finds chores and odd jobs for him or her to do around the Granny’s House property and “pays” the kids in points. Once a child has enough points, he or she can go “shop” at the Granny’s House store for whatever they may need for camp, like a sleeping bag and clothes.
“It’s a stealthy way to re-wire them to realize provision does not equal handout,” Ingram said. “It’s empowering for a kid to realize they have the ability to provide for themselves.”
Granny’s House has opened its doors every day for nearly 13 years and there’s no sign of Ingram shutting it down soon. Ingram believes God had a purpose to use her childhood to minister to kids in Columbia, she said. She uses her personal experiences as a child growing up in public housing and often experiencing food insecurity, to show compassion to the kids that call her “Granny.”
“I think it’s really interesting to watch Pam interact with the children,” her sister said. “It’s not ‘Here, let me reach down and help you.’ It’s ‘Here, let me walk beside you and show you how I pulled myself out of this situation. Pam has chosen not only to look back, but to give back.”