Bound for Wall Street, Aaron finds a home on Main Street

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"There's nothing more powerful in the world than a good story," the writers of "Game of Thrones" reminded the show's fanbase in the series finale. 

Tina Aaron entranced a room full of people with her story on Wednesday at the Walker Area Community Foundation's annual luncheon, where the focus was on the stories made possible by generosity and partnerships. 

Aaron, director of Youth Advocate Programs (YAP) in Jasper, once dreamed of working on Wall Street — a rather audacious dream for a young woman raised in poverty in Pineywoods.

"That was my plan, but that wasn't my purpose," Aaron said. 

Instead, Aaron ended up working on 20th Street West, which she refers to as "Main Street 2.0." Part of the YAP team's job description is offering hope to youth and their families who have been broken by the same struggles that Aaron's family experienced more than 30 years ago.

Aaron encouraged the audience to stop asking a troubled youth, "What is wrong with you?" The more appropriate and enlightening question would be "What has happened to you?"

In Aaron's case, what happened was her father, a Pineywoods native, met and married her mother in France while serving in the military.

At 24, Aaron's mother moved to the United States. At 38, she became a single mother of four children following a divorce. She did not drive, had little education, spoke English as a second language and did not work outside the home. 

The family lived on $150 a week that Aaron's father sent in child support. Aaron's mother earned extra income by babysitting. The children, including 13-year-old Aaron, went to work.

Aaron used her paycheck to buy clothes so she could look like her peers. Still, she recalled how angry and ashamed she felt to be working every weekend.

"A lot of our kids are angry because of the life they have. I was angry for a long time. I felt ashamed that we were poor, as if there was something we had done to deserve it," Aaron said.

She was further shamed as a teenager when she helped a friend collect canned goods for needy families in the community and the food was delivered to her own home the next night.

The family was rocked by tragedy as well as the constraints of poverty. At 13, Aaron lost her oldest brother, the much-beloved head of the household, in a work-related accident.

Another brother spent two months in the hospital after contracting viral encephalitis from a mosquito bite, which left him with permanent health struggles.  

Aaron never moved to New York, though she did earn a finance degree from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. 

She married and went to work with the Walker County Department of Human Resources. She then worked at Bevill State Community College for 17 years as a job readiness instructor for the welfare-to-work program before becoming YAP director.

Aaron's experiences influence how she goes about her work. The YAP house is always full of food because she once knew true hunger and believes "We can't reach a child's heart on an empty stomach."

As a member of one of Leadership Walker County's teams in 2016, Aaron spearheaded The Secret Pantry, which provides area students with basic personal hygiene items as well as food and clothing.

In January, a new WACF component fund was formed after Aaron had a conversation with director of operations Cristy Moody about client needs that aren't covered by normal nonprofit funding. 

Examples include dental work, nursing scrubs and shoes, car repairs, driver's license fees and daycare for clients, mostly women, who are working to provide for their families but can't afford such extra expenses. To date, more than $12,000 in grants has been distributed through the Onward Fund.

Throughout her life, Aaron has known the support of good neighbors. When her oldest brother died, others bought clothes for the family to wear to the funeral and paid for the funeral itself.

A Sunday School class raised the funds to send Aaron and her mother to France for a month.

When her mother was at the hospital with her brother, the families of friends let her stay with them.

Because countless people invested in her without any thought of how it would benefit them, she can live a life in which she spends her days helping others. 

"As one person, I cannot change the world, but I can change the world of one person, and so can you," she said.