Set in the heart of Appalachia, Kentucky’s 5th congressional district is one of the most impoverished in the nation. A resident of this rural area in the southeast part of the state, teacher Jonathan Barnes knows how hard life can be for the struggling families around him.
And yet, Jonathan is speaking out about the importance of foreign aid.
“The right thing to do about the budget is not to cut foreign aid,” he says. “So we’ve gotta do the right thing. This is the right thing. This is justice. This is life and death.”
A teacher, father, and worship leader, Jonathan has volunteered with ONE since 2006. He and his wife, Michelle, have been to Rwanda and taken mission trips to Haiti with their church. In his job, Jonathan teaches government and social studies at a boarding school where many students come from as far as countries in Africa. So he’s seen poverty up close — both abroad and at home.
He knows that many people in struggling rural communities like his own might not understand why he supports foreign aid — but he also knows that just because someone doesn’t initially support the fight for aid, it doesn’t mean they’re heartless:
“People here really are good-hearted,” he says. “That’s something to know about people in eastern Kentucky — they care about helping people. So it’s about awareness: They need to know we can help people around them and people in other countries. It’s not either/or. It’s both/and.”
“There’s no reason,” adds Michelle, Jonathan’s wife, “when we have all these resources, that we can’t help these kids that are literally dying because they can’t get a 10 cent vaccine or their mom can’t afford rice for them and things like that that are so simple for us. Yes, we do have to make cuts somewhere, but you have to prioritize where you’re gonna make ’em.”
Foreign aid is currently less than 1% of all U.S. spending. And it’s been very effective for people living in extreme poverty: In 20 years, the numbers of people in the world living in extreme poverty and the number of people who are chronically malnourished have both been cut in half. And because of the bipartisan commitment to PEPFAR and the Global Fund, we are close to turning the tide against the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
That’s the type of information Jonathan is dedicated to sharing with the people in his community. For example, in sub-Saharan Africa, nearly seven in 10 people do not have access to electricity, forcing many women to give birth in under-equipped hospitals, and putting childhood vaccines that require refrigeration at risk.
“Electricity is so basic; we have it all around us,” says Jonathan. “We don’t realize how much electricity can help. Being in sub-Saharan Africa and experiencing power outages pretty much at random and the challenges of that just as a visitor, and then trying to imagine living without reliable electricity and thinking about all the practical problems it causes… it’s very instrumental in the fight against extreme poverty.”
But Jonathan’s not just working hard to convince people in his community about the value of aid. As a ONE volunteer, Jonathan wants to take his message straight to the top: He hopes to talk about foreign aid in person with Rep. Hal Rogers, the Republican representative for Kentucky’s fifth congressional district.
“If you care enough to vote, then there are other things that are important to you and if they’re important to you, you want to let your elected officials know that they’re important to you because then it’ll become important to them. Their job is to serve you, so, therefore, you want to let them know how you want to be served or how you think they best can serve. You’re their boss, believe it or not.”
Jonathan encourages his students to write or call their elected leaders, but he encourages the adults around him to do the same, especially if they want to help improve the world around them. It costs very little, but makes a huge difference. And it’s as simple as sharing a story about what’s important to you.
“If you care enough to be involved, that’s what you need to talk to people about,” he says. “The statistics and the numbers are important, but your story is important.”
“If I can write a big check and do something, that’d be good — but money by itself doesn’t get stuff done,” he adds. “Advocacy gets stuff done.”
Michelle agrees: “I can’t go save the world. I can’t go provide food for everybody. That’s impossible. But I can use my voice, and I can talk to those who have the power over the money to say, ‘Hey, this is what we need to do. We need to save the next generation.’ We could be losing someone who holds the cure for cancer. And why would we shortchange the world of that?”
Whether he gets to talk to Rep. Rogers about this issue or not, Jonathan is proud of his advocacy in the fight to end poverty. “I feel like I’m a better American citizen because I realize that I have a voice.”