COLUMBIA — In early 2008, eight people started a long, hard journey together: a journey out of poverty.
Six months later, most are still working their way up that ladder, fighting obstacles such as child care, the cost of higher education, government sanctions and gas prices. Meanwhile, another group has started their journey out of the hole of being broke.
Be a volunteerHelp cook meals for Thursday meetings, take care of children during meetings, give rides to appointments or find your own way to get involved.
Be an allySpend two hours taking a “Bridges out of Poverty” class to learn about different types of poverty, and then meet the Circles leaders and use your skills and knowledge to help them reach their goals.
Educate yourselfStarting in September, on the fourth Thursday of each month, Circles will host a “Big View” meeting for the community to discuss the issues of getting out of poverty in Columbia. To get involved with Circles as a volunteer, ally or Circle leader, e-mail BooneCountyCircles @showmeaction.org or call CMCA at 443-8731.
Through Circles, a program offered through Central Missouri Community Action, each “Circle Leader” — someone looking to get out of poverty — will take a class on the hidden rules of poverty, make goals for the future, build relationships with people, learn about resources in the community and, ideally, get off government assistance and onto a new life.
Sick of being broke
For Christina Schneider, 28, and her 3-year-old son Jordan, the best part of Circles is the Thursday family dinners when the Circle Leaders gather to eat, chat and hear presentations from different community agencies or speakers.
Schneider was one of the five who graduated in June from the first class of Circles. Not only is she moving on to the next step by meeting Allies — community members looking to help families out of poverty — she’s also returning to help teach the second group of Circles’ Leaders.
Soon, she will choose her Allies and is optimistic that she’ll be able to change her situation more.
“I’m not in poverty because I can’t budget, but because I’ve had trouble with work and child care,” Schneider said. “What they taught was how I was already living.”
Schneider feels Circles is good for her and her son. She enjoys getting to talk to others in similar situations and being recognized as an individual, not just someone who’s broke.
Samantha Polk joined the new class of Circles that started in late June. She hopes the program will be “a kick-start in the right direction.” Polk and her husband have five children, ages 5, 4, 3, 2 and 4 months. “I have too many kids to not know what to do, to not have a career,” Polk said.
“I’m so sick of being broke.”
Of the eight people in the first class of Circles, which began early this year, only three were employed. Now, of the five that completed the class, three are employed full-time — two of them with benefits. Another Circle Leader has been offered full-time employment with benefits, and one is continuing her education.
Of the three who didn’t complete the class, two are trying again with the second class that started a few weeks ago.
Having 14 people join the second class was “way beyond our expectations,” said Dena Latimer, family support coordinator for Circles.
So, how does it work? It’s not “piecemeal assistance,” said the staff of CMCA. Although the Circles Leaders get paid a stipend to cover child care and transportation costs for their meetings, the goal of the program is to help them build relationships across class and race lines to help achieve their goals.
The Circles Leaders attend 24 hours of a class called “Getting Ahead in a Just Gettin’-by-World,” which teaches them about some of the systemic barriers of poverty, and the “hidden rules” society sets for people in poverty. For some people, Latimer said, the class set off a lightbulb about why they are treated the way they are, and that they are not alone.
After completing the class, Circle Leaders start to meet “Allies,” or community members interested in helping them achieve their goals. Allies use their knowledge of the city and other skills to help the Circle Leaders, whether it means teaching them how to fix their own car or alerting them to job openings. Allies serve primarily as a supportive relationship, and financial “hand-outs” are not expected or encouraged from Allies.
The biggest misconception is that people in poverty don’t work, said Ann Ojeh, Vista worker and one coordinator for Circles.
“I’ve worked two jobs and been in poverty my whole life,” Ojeh said.
Another common mistake is assuming people in poverty are alike. Circles stresses that although each participant faces some similar problems, each is an individual. In the same way, they are recognized as being no different than people who are not in poverty.
“Our values of life are the same, what we want to change are the same as everybody else,” Schneider said.
The first class of Circles was funded in part by a federal grant to help people who were sanctioned recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, formerly known as welfare.
When someone receiving TANF has been sanctioned, it means they stopped receiving the assistance due to one of a number of things, such as not working enough hours per week or missing a sanction appointment.
The second class is supported by two grants: a Work Support Grant and Community Service Block Grant. The second grant allows more people looking to get out of poverty, not just TANF recipients, to participate as Circles Leaders.
An agency “soul searching”
Circles came to Boone County while Central Missouri Community Action was soul-searching. During a period of self-examination, it became clear that an essential part of its mission was missing — the “community” part. Circles requires the whole community, not just low-income or middle-class people, to get involved as Circle Leaders, Allies and volunteers. It also helps the whole community, bringing people out of poverty so tax dollars can be spent elsewhere.
“We have a great, diverse community that loves to volunteer,” said Adam Tipton, Boone County supervisor for CMCA. The hard part, he said, is getting people to buy into a new program and spreading the message about how little time it takes to be an Ally or volunteer.
By late summer, the second group will graduate from the Getting Ahead class, and the first class will be partnered with their Allies.
Future plans for Circles include a car donation program and more community involvement with providing food and child care for meetings.
Ojeh, who’s only 23, said the personal experience of being in poverty helps her recognize the value of forming this community. “It’s lifting spirits to know I’m not the only one,” Ojeh said.