Circles helps people looking to get out of poverty

Sunday, July 13, 2008 | 4:24 p.m. CDT; updated 4:25 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Christina Schneider serves soup to her son, Jordan, 3, at a Circles meeting at Broadway Christian Church on Thursday. After dinner, Schneider and other Circles participants heard about opportunities on continuing their education and finding future employment.

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 volunteer

Help 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 ally

Spend 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 yourself

Starting 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 or call CMCA at 443-8731.

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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.”

Getting results

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.

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Laura Johnston July 15, 2008 | 10:57 a.m.

From Tracy Greever Rice

In Julia Haslanger's otherwise very interesting, very well written article, 'Circles Help People Looking to Get Out of Poverty', there is an inaccuracy in the statement; '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.'

There has never been a federal program called 'welfare' - ever. While I understand the editorial concern that not all readers will know the alphabet soup of federal program acronyms or even official program titles, wouldn't it be more accurate to say TANF is commonly referred to as 'welfare'? Saying that 'TANF was formally known as welfare' is like saying 'No Child Left Behind was formally known as public education'.

In 1996, TANF replaced a program, first called Aid to Dependent Children (ADC) and later called Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). The Aid to Dependent Children program was a component of the FDR administration's 1935 Social Security Act. At that time, ADC was not just politically viable, but politically lauded by most, as were benefits established for the elderly and disabled that continue today, colloquially called 'Social Security' and 'Medicare'. The ADC program's title was changed in 1960 to include 'families with' dependent children, reflecting the Kennedy administration's response to a conservative attack on the program that accused it of encouraging children born out of wedlock. The Johnson administration not just protected, but enhanced the Social Security Administration's programs through his policy initiative, 'The War on Poverty', which additionally made health care benefits available to the poor through the federal Medicaid program initiated in 1965.

I am submitting you to this little lecture because 'welfare' is a generic, frequently pejorative term that refers to no specific program or policy, yet certainly reflects an insidious political and social bias that is typically hateful towards the most vulnerable in our nation. Usually when I see the term 'welfare' used by the media, it's used as a lazy descriptive. So I simply wince, bite my tongue, and try not to think about it. However, in this case, the term 'welfare' is used incorrectly as a direct and specific reference for the reader. So, it deserves correction.

(Report Comment)
merlena cox November 27, 2009 | 2:25 p.m.

hi, my name is merlena and i really enjoyed your article i was doing a lot of searching on the web for help on my situation . I am what you consider in the poverty level and i am sick and tired of being broke and just getting by from paycheck too paycheck. i want too be able too get off of foodstamps and i want too be able too get off of section 8 but it is so hard so i am considering letting my section 8 certificate go because i am not makeing ends meet i do not have my ged and i dream about it everyday i go too sleep thinking abot how i wasted my life and how quick it is too not realalize the your life is passing away so quick my dream is too get my ged and go too college and get a degree in criminal justice and also i really thinking about a teaching as in becomeing a teacher but my mind will not stay focused on my ged because i am so far in debt my mind will not stay focused i do have a job but it is not makeing ends meet i just need a mentor too help me get on that track too recovery well i live in ,mobile alabama we need help not everyone wants too live like this i want too expierence the american dream i just need too know how too get myself out of debt. i hope you get this email

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking November 28, 2009 | 5:53 a.m.

Merlena, the only person that can get you out of debt is yourself. Getting out of debt is really very simple - just spend less than you earn until you have your debts paid off. Have you looked into credit counseling (through a bank or social agency - beware of fraudulent ones)? Do you spend money on things that you don't absolutely need? Have you looked into declaring bankruptcy (as much as I'd recommend against it)? Is there a Circles, or equivalent, in the Mobile area that could give you support?

Good luck, and I hope your dreams come true. You can make them come true if you try hard enough, and it will be an endless source of pride when you do.


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