12/22/2011 09:17 am ET Updated Dec 22, 2011

Occupy Y'All Street: Three Generations Try To Escape Poverty Through Occupy Columbia

This is the third in a series of stories and short films on under-publicized Occupy sites. The first is here. The second is here. Stay tuned in the coming days for more from our road trip through the South.

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- In the early morning of Oct. 15, Jessica Smith, 29, packed up her mother's late '90s Crown Victoria and said goodbye to her mobile home, located on a half-acre off a dirt road. She woke up her 12-year-old son, Dakota, whom she home-schools, for the 20-minute ride northeast to Columbia. She had decided that they needed to join the Occupy group assembling there that morning. Smith wasn't planning on coming back anytime soon.

Smith's mother dropped her and her son off at the state capitol. It was 8:45 a.m. The grounds were quiet and empty. A few cops silently walked through the area. The last steady work Smith had was inside the capitol. She had joined on with a small furniture company that repaired antiques and had refinished every desk inside the statehouse. The job ended when they ran out of desks. That was two years ago.

Smith realized that she was the first would-be Occupier on the site. "God I hope I'm not the only one who shows up," she recalls thinking. "I was hoping to walk up and see hundreds of people."

Smith had brought blankets, a pillow, a sleeping bag, several changes of clothes, a pre-paid Walmart cellphone, school supplies for her son and hundreds of pieces of poster board and markers for her fellow Occupiers. As she waited for the others, she sat with her blank posters and let Dakota climb trees and run around the statehouse grounds.

At 9 a.m., Smith set up the first table of the Occupation and got to work making protest signs. Many of her posters addressed getting money out of politics. Others took swipes at Republican Gov. Nikki Haley. Her favorite was one she made for herself to hold. It asked simply: "Who owns you?"

Eventually, people started coming from different sides of the capitol grounds and up to Smith's table. "Is this the Occupy place?" she recalls them asking. "Are you with Occupy? What are you up here for?" More and more started to join Smith. It felt surreal, she says. It felt like the beginning of something.

Smith had never been to a protest. Later that day, her mother would rejoin her and her son. "I never felt so important before," Smith says.

Smith grew up in poverty and hadn't managed to lift herself out of the temp work, food-service uniforms and double shifts that have become emblems of the anonymous, working poor. At the mobile home, Smith relied on a well for water. She couldn't remember a time when she didn't worry about paying the electricity bill.

"When you have to decide whether you eat or pay your light bill, sometimes you have to eat," she says.

In the previous installments of our Occupy Y'All Street series, The Huffington Post chronicled how the Occupy movement has drawn membership from victims of the Great Recession. We followed a recently laid-off painter and struggling restaurant owner in Gainesville, Florida, and a family whose home had been foreclosed on in the suburbs of Atlanta.

Smith didn't become another statistic during the Great Recession, however. She had already fallen through the safety net. Before she set up camp on the South Carolina capitol grounds, Smith was just poor.

* * * * *

First came fear. Before Jessica was born, her mother, Gwyndolyn Garner, spent much of the pregnancy at a Columbia homeless shelter. "It was fear every day," Garner says of her shelter stint. The shelter didn't look kindly at her, she says, nor did they want her around for so long.

"Any day they could throw you out," Garner, 56, remembers. "It was run by Catholic sisters. Sometimes they threw people out just because. I tried to be good. I tried to do all the work. They started coming down saying I had been there too long. ... I think I lost 12 pounds during that pregnancy."

Her pregnancy got her fired from a burger and ice cream franchise where she waitressed. Just as the homeless shelter was threatening to kick her out, Garner started receiving unemployment benefits and was able to move in with some friends who had a house behind a chicken plant. She took a job cleaning a big house once a week, but it hardly covered expenses. She worked as a landscaper. She walked everywhere. She searched constantly for jobs. Opportunity didn't knock.

"I've been in a recession all my life," she says.

Garner says she developed survival skills. She supplemented her income by selling plasma twice a week. "I don't have big veins," she says. "I have tiny veins. My whole arm would be black."

After she'd had Jessica, when she didn't have money for baby formula, she made her own homemade version using canned milk, liquefied baby vitamins, corn syrup and water.

A problem with rats led Garner to move to another apartment. This one had no stove, no fridge and no heat. "I went to a thrift store," she recalls, "and got an electric frying pan, toaster oven, a plastic pot that could heat up water, and got a cooler and put ice in it every other day or so."

That first night, she and Smith both woke up screaming, their bodies covered in ants.

"Honestly, God got me through it. I don't know. Just got through it," Garner says. "I don't know how it happened. I don't know how I managed it, but I did. Every single day, I got up and did everything I could."

"I had a child that was dependent on me."

Smith's father had wanted little to do with his family. An iron worker, he could drink heavily and get violent. Garner says he died after accidentally lighting himself on fire when Smith was 16 months old.

Garner took on a job waitressing and another managing a laundromat. She says she lived on sweet tea and Dexedrine. She also found a job as a cab driver. She liked that she could set her own hours, and if her electricity bill needed paying, she could just keep driving until she had enough cash to settle it.

But cab driving could be a seedy business. "You had to learn how to stay alive," she says. "Being a female and people like they are, if you don't have intuition then you probably shouldn't drive a cab. Every little bit of dirt that gets done is done in a cab."

Garner says she drove prostitutes to big houses on Sundays during church services, strippers to work, and at least a few men who tried to get physical with her. The last guy to threaten her, she simply drove the fare to the nearest cop. There was a warrant out for the man for domestic violence and he was arrested on the spot. "He was all over me, putting his arms around me trying to touch me," she says. "I was mad."

In the early '90s, Garner achieved a temporary hold on the first rung into the middle class. She started making payments on a three-bedroom house with a little front porch and a rose-colored den. But an abusive boyfriend shattered the small bit of tranquility they had, she says. Garner had to let the house go.

Garner wanted to flee to Alaska. Instead she and Smith settled in a small town in Montana. She found a job caring for people with mental disabilities at a state-run group home, where she changed adult diapers and kept watch over patients through the night. It was, Garner says, the best job she ever had.

After a year, though, she started to get sick. Doctors weren't sure whether she had heart problems or emphysema. She decided to return to Columbia. She got back in her cab and took a second job at a Kroger grocery store until her knees gave out.

* * * * *

Growing up, Smith rarely saw her mother for any extended period of time. "When I was younger, it was more of, God, passing ships kind of thing. It's always been that way with us," Smith says. "By the time I got home from school, she was napping getting ready to go to work."

Garner says she felt her daughter constantly tearing from her grasp, escaping into mischief. "It was like holding a leash on a really big dog that's been dragging me down the road," she says. "I never could catch up."

"I was a hyper kid," Smith admits, "on the go all the time. I was ready to go constantly. I don't think it was a matter of rebelling against my mom. I wanted to go and play and run and nevermind what anybody else said."

Garner moved around a lot, trying to find the right school, the right fit for her daughter. "I wasn't unintelligent in school, but because of the neighborhoods I grew up in, or because of how much money was in our pocket or was not in our pocket, we were not treated the same," Smith says.

When she was 13, Smith got into a fight at school and was charged with inciting a riot. She served 45 days in a juvenile justice facility.

"We got up in the morning, we marched everywhere, we were told when to go the bathroom, when to go to school, when to eat," she says. "It was definitely jail."

Smith got out and ended up at an alternative school. She quit at 16 and went on to get her GED. She got a job at a Zesto, a fast-food chain famous for its soft-serve ice cream. She took orders at the counter. It was the same establishment that Garner says fired her when she got pregnant with Smith.

When Smith got pregnant with her son at 17, she says the restaurant kept up the tradition and fired her too.

Smith wasn't ready to take on the responsibilities of motherhood. Garner legally adopted Dakota. Smith and Garner have yet to bring themselves to discuss the difficult circumstances of Smith's pregnancy with each other, let alone publicly.

"I'm not sure I want to publicly divulge that part of my life," Smith says. "It would be more harmful than anything to my son. There was a reason I let my mom adopt him. It was the best thing at the time. I was very upset about how I became pregnant. It was the best option at the time."

Just as she had with Smith, when Garner brought Dakota home from the hospital, she had to be resourceful. They survived on day-old bread giveaways and community food pantries. Garner scoured flea markets for clothes. The day before she was set to have her phone cut off, she got a job dispatching cabs and sought out a self-help class to relieve her from an intractable depression.

Dakota knew they were poor. "I do see it," he says. "Sometimes she's, like, hiding it from me. But I see it myself. I can't really explain that. ... It makes me aggravated, but I can't explain it. It's hard to put into words. It just really made me aggravated."

Smith buried her disappointments in 17-hour workdays at a Waffle House, cooking on the second shift and waiting tables on the third. She worked six days a week and lived on coffee. She hardly made any money. "I wasn't working for anything but just to survive," she says.

When Smith was old enough to drink, she started partying. Once she called her mom to tell her that she had tried cocaine. "Felt like it was her fault at the time," Smith explains. "It felt like a lot of things were her fault. She was all I had. ... My whole life I don't feel like my family has fallen through the cracks. I feel like we've been pushed through the cracks."

Soon, after Garner began having problems with Dakota's school, she decided to start homeschooling him. He was 10 years old at the time. A year into the effort, Smith returned and asked to raise him. The reunion hasn't always been easy. The transition into motherhood has been gradual. Dakota still calls Garner "mom." He and Smith are only now building a relationship beyond basketball games and chores, the family says.

"I'm so thankful that he's here," Smith says. "I wish that this point in my life would have come sooner. I wish I would have grown up faster so I could have taken care of him."

"I don't really worry about her," Dakota says. "She's really strong."

* * * * *

That first night at the Occupy camp in Columbia, after a chaotic first general assembly, Smith and her son stayed up late, excited to be camping out. Within the next couple of days, Smith continued making posters and she started helping run the kitchen. She also taught lessons to Dakota. That first week, they tackled adding and subtracting decimals. Later, they read a book about a girl who invented her own way of flying.

In the afternoons, they made a habit of taking out their homemade posters and waving them at motorists leaving downtown. They chanted constantly. Soon, Smith lost her voice. Every time a car honked in approval, Dakota got more and more excited.

"Every day that went by, everything became easier and more natural," Smith recalls.

At the camp, Smith has helped keep track of the cash and clothing donations, and served on the food committee. When tents needed to be broken down and moved -- to prevent the grass from dying -- she was eager to take charge. She has been mistaken for a military veteran.

When we met Smith on the 26th day of the Occupation, the activists had just moved the entire camp of roughly 15 tents. Her mood was light, almost giddy.

"She's absolutely amazing," says Melissa Harmon, a 34-year-old organizer with Occupy Columbia. "She's fully engaged. When someone wants something, she's the person at the camp that knows where everything is. She really deals with a lot of the camp stuff, a lot of organizing, helping in the kitchen, [doing] the stuff that has to happen that no one wants to do."

Smith says it hasn't felt like grunt work. "I had never been responsible for such a large-scale situation before," Smith says. "It was very liberating. I put myself in the position to be responsible. And I loved it."

A little after the first week, Smith sent Dakota back to the mobile home, so he could concentrate more on his studies. She arranged for her girlfriend, nephew and mother to pitch in and give him his lessons. Dakota visits during the week and stays with her on the weekends. She sleeps on the ground, with Dakota next to her on a donated cot.

Parting can be tough. "When we're at home, all we do is watch TV or go outside," Dakota explains. "But now protesting, we're actually spending time together ... I get to hold signs and chant, just have fun. I'm probably the only kid in Columbia who's understanding what's going on."

Garner has also become a regular presence at the encampment. She'll sit in a lawn chair and hold a sign up for the rush-hour traffic. After a court victory that allowed the camp to remain on the capitol grounds, Garner exclaimed on the phone: "We won!"

Garner feels like the Occupation has helped turn her daughter's life around. "She's woken up," she says. "I don't know. She's awake. She wasn't awake before."

Smith has no plans to leave Occupy Columbia: "I don't know what it is but I do know I want more than this. I think I'm at the point in my life where I'm willing to do what it takes to have more than this. ... I want more than just the day-to-day grind. Life shouldn't be hard from the time you are born to the time you take your last breath. It shouldn't be so hard for so long."