The conference room at the Open M October 12 was a cause for celebration, pride and achievement for five men and five women who know poverty firsthand.
They are the 10th graduating class of "Getting Ahead," a Bridges Out of Poverty construct that educates participants with group workshops on how generational poverty affects them and their communities.
Getting Ahead is not a channel through which participants are given a list of community agencies to help them obtain social services they may have access to because of their economic status. Instead, it follows "Getting Ahead in a Just-Gettin'-By World: Building Your Resources for a Better Life," an instructional by social worker Phillip E. DeVol.
During 14 three-hour sessions, Ahead participants, called "investigators," explore poverty on individual and community levels and its effects on jobs, housing and health issues. After assessing their own resources and that of their communities, investigators first create a plan to build on their own resources and then a second one to help their communities thrive.
Hannah Nitz smiles broadly at the group. A licensed social worker and family development specialist with Bridges, Nitz spent a lot of time with these grads as a facilitator guiding their sessions, which emphasizes that those in poverty are problem solvers.
"We challenge those in generational poverty to start thinking a little bit differently, to understand and start moving toward what they want," Nitz says. "It's not about what we think they should do or what a social worker thinks is best."
While waiting to be awarded their certificates, the well-dressed graduates joke and laugh generously with one another.
At the lectern, Open M operations manager Lamont Graves says: "I encourage you to not only continue in the endeavor of what you're doing but to also look to Hannah and to Open M for help because we'll be here for you. And even though you have resources like the Getting Ahead material, you can't find a better resource than the Lord."
"Amen," say the graduates.
"Now you get to go out and implement all this stuff we have sat down and talked, planned and dreamed about," encourages Nitz. "Remember, you're going to be told 'no' 10 times before 'yes.' But keep moving, striving and working toward your goals!"
Nitz recalls the classes were not "exactly a light topic," and although the graduates encountered medical issues, missed their buses or had their utilities cut off, "you guys still had joy because you were looking at your future and not just the right now."
More than 300 have graduated from Getting Ahead at seven agencies countywide.
"As we learned about ourselves, we couldn't help but learn about the others, their hopes, dreams, and I feel this is what makes this program work," says a smiling and emotional Denise Peters to her fellow graduates. "I have been fortunate enough in my life to attend and graduate from college twice. But my five years there in no way compares to my time here with you all."
Congratulations graduates, hoping the path ahead is a bounty of reward and fulfillment.