Home All The Spirit of a Brighter Christmas Future for Children of Rural Poverty

The Spirit of a Brighter Christmas Future for Children of Rural Poverty

written by John Yeager 11 December 2009

John M. Yeager, Ed.D, MAPP, is Director of the Center for Character Excellence at The Culver Academies in Culver, Indiana. John consults with Dave Shearon, and Sherri Fisher at www.FlourishingSchools.com, an organization that integrates best practices in education with cutting edge Positive Psychology research. He co-authored the recently published book, Smart Strengths: Building Character, Resilience and Relationships in Youth. Full bio.

John's articles are here.

How do we help children growing up in poverty build “future stories” that give them hope and energy?

In Charles Dicken’s book, A Christmas Carol, the ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge two gaunt children – impoverished, withered and dirty. Their names are Ignorance and Want. He cautions Scrooge,

Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.

Jeremy Riffle, principal of the Triton Elementary School in Bourbon Indiana, is a real life Spirit of a Brighter Christmas future. He has a core group of students that are at the poverty line or below. Jeremy and his teachers have focused on strategies to “help erase some of the back story” to bring out the best in students who have grown up in generational poverty in this rural community in North Central Indiana.

Four Reasons One Leaves Poverty

Many of his teachers have attended seminars with Ruby Payne, the author of A Framework for Understanding Poverty. Payne, an expert in understanding the mindsets of poverty, middle class, and wealth in the United States, claims that there are four reasons one leaves poverty:

  • It’s too painful to stay
  • A vision or a goal
  • A key relationship
  • A special talent or skill

Building A Future Story

Jeremy and his teachers have focused on what Payne calls the child’s development of a “future story.” Payne claims that a lot of students don’t have a future story because they live from 24 hours to 24 hours.

The future story simply says that if a child likes Peyton Manning, the iconic quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts, a number “18” jersey or a book about Manning might be a perfect gift.

Very few young people will approach Manning’s position on the spotlight of the football gridiron, but maybe they can relate to some of the challenges that he went through and be motivated by his deliberate practice to succeed.


Unfortunately, some impoverished children are worried at the moment about what they are going to eat and what clothes are they going to wear. People of poverty tend to look at the here and now because they are simply trying to survive. Providing them with a future story allows them to look beyond 24 hours to a future, whether it be going to college or a trade school – finding something they really enjoy to give them motivation. Christine Cook, the Reading First Cognitive Coach at Triton Elementary, believes that is important to present possibilities for the future that most students of poverty aren’t building within their families. Here is the story of Daniel (name has been changed), a Triton Elementary student that Jeremy has mentored.

Jeremy simply asked him: “What do you have a passion for?”

Daniel: “I have a passion for cooking and I want to be a chef and I want to be in a band.”

Jeremy: What are you doing on a daily basis to become a better chef?

Daniel: “Well, we don’t have a lot of food in our house.”

Jeremy: “Okay. What do you do to become a better band member?”

Daniel: “Well, I really like to play the guitar, but several of my guitar strings are broke.”

Jeremy provided guitar strings to help that student with his future story. Now there is a high school student who is giving Daniel guitar lessons during his special class time. After a series of lessons, Daniel met with Jeremy again.

Daniel: “You know. I learned a song, and I want to play it for the teacher and students in the music class.”

Daniel went to his music teacher and told her, “You know guitar lessons are so much cooler than music class.”
The teacher didn’t take offense to what Daniel said and replied: “You know what? I agree with you, Daniel. And I am so excited to have you come and play.”

Daniel ended up playing for her music class!

Best Possible Future Self

Laura King, a University of Missouri researcher has investigated not only the benefits of writing about challenging past experiences, but also imagining the future and writing about it. Her work with college students showed that those who wrote about their “best possible future self” showed decreases in illness and more overall optimism.

With the first steps of developing a future self, Daniel needed to have resources to achieve his goals and to put his strengths into action, but so many students don’t have the resources to build a future story. Jeremy has encouraged every one of his teachers to pick one child, just to be an extra resource. It may just mean stopping by to say, “How’s it going?” This is the first step in the blueprint towards getting out of their “back stories.”

Tom Rath, the author of How Full is Your Bucket claims “You can’t be anything you want to be, but you can be a whole lot more of who you already are.” By educating young people about their possible future stories, we provide them with a hopeful Christmas yet to come – for Tiny Tim and for Daniel!


Dickens, C. (2008) A Christmas Carol. Brandywine Studio Press.

King, L. A. (2001). The health benefits of writing about life goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27, 798-807.

Payne, R. (2005). A Framework for Understanding Poverty. Highlands, Texas: aha Process, Inc.

Rath, T. (2004). How Full Is Your Bucket? Positive Strategies for Work and Life New York: Gallup Press.

Rath, T. (2007). StrengthsFinder 2.0: A New and Upgraded Edition of the Online Test from Gallup’s Now, Discover Your Strengths. New York: Gallup Press.


Scrooge with Christmas Present courtesy of perpetualplum
coltssaints226 courtesy of Paul J Everett.
Little Peyton courtesy of Jerry
Guitar Player in London courtesy of MontyPython
Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim courtesy of perpetualplum

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Senia 12 December 2009 - 3:59 am

This is brilliant and beautiful.
It’s like asking the right questions – or giving the right props – at the right time. Don’t we all wish we could help people like that – in the right time, and in the right way?
Great Peyton example – sometimes we want things without wanting to put in the effort to do those things.
Thank you,

John Yeager 12 December 2009 - 10:32 am

Senia: Yes, there needs to be the support to help young people “will” their future, not just to wish for a better world. Providing a future story at least sets a vision – then adult mentors can help young people re-establish the terrain and work on skills to navigate the journey.


Emily 14 December 2009 - 6:15 pm

Thank you so much, John. This is a lovely example of making a difference in a very non-splashy but profound way. It provides much to ponder. I am looking forward to hearing about your further work in this area. This article gave me a new tool too…to ask myself the question “What are you doing every day to be a better….?” when I find myself wishing or wanting. Congratulations to Jeremy Riffle and his team at Triton, as well, for taking this “live” every day.

John Yeager 26 December 2009 - 10:57 am

Emily: The question “What are you doing every day to be a better . . .? can turn into a powerful mantra – a call to action. This is a great question that we should have the Triton team asking themselves also. Thanks.



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