There’s always been a delineation among those in poverty, the middle class and the wealthy. And while members of each may try to understand how those outside of their own class live, rarely is it accurate — or even possible — to fully grasp.
But collective strides are taking place locally among volunteers and community leaders in the middle and upper class to partner with those in poverty to educate and enlighten one another. More importantly, the goal is to help families climb out of poverty.
Circles is a national campaign, now in 24 states and growing, that empowers all economic classes to help solve poverty. This January, Circles is taking shape at one of the 22 agencies countywide committed to ending poverty, Akron Summit Community Action, Inc. (ASCA).
“Most often, people in poverty are told what they need to do or must do,” said Megan Scheck, a licensed social worker and ASCA Circles administrator. “But really, we’re putting the power in their own hands to get out of poverty, to say, ‘Yes, this is what I want and need to do.'”
Circles comprises two groups, Leaders, who want to exit their poverty, and Allies, financially stable folks who will help Leaders achieve their goal solely with positive social support.
“Circles is about matching people who are not really matched together in the real world,” Scheck said. “It’s creating relationships across class, race and social lines. Everyone who’s in the program owns the program.”
One of those owners is Yaminah Martin, a Leader and Getting Ahead graduate, a requirement for the Circles program. Getting Ahead is a Bridges out of Poverty two-fold initiative through Open M that helps those in poverty explore their situation and come up with a plan and resources to rid themselves and the community in which they live of poverty.
“We know what it is like to be knee-deep in poverty,” said Martin, a single mother of three.
“When someone is coming from the middle class or wealth, they do not. They can read or be told about it, but they’ll never really know. So Circles brings these worlds together.”
Circles is an 18-month commitment that meets Wednesdays from 5:30 – 7:30 p.m. at Westminster Presbyterian Church and provides dinner and childcare. Participants are asked to attend two meetings monthly. And depending on the dynamic that Leaders and their Allies forge, those meetings don’t have to be at Westminster.
“It’s really flexible and based on what these people want it to be,” Scheck said.
At this writing, there are 17 Leaders and close to 30 Allies. As this initial Circle progresses, more Getting Ahead graduates will join new Circles as Leaders, along with more volunteers to help further them along. Martin, who is an AmeriCorps VISTA member, has the benefit of not only being the first Leader in Circles, but gets to work behind the scenes and plans to be on the other side of the fence. She was hired last year to work with Scheck in Circles and said, “If I do what I’m supposed to, I’ll be an Ally!”
Neither Leaders nor Allies are matched coldly. Leaders go into Circles with the exit-poverty plan they devised during their time in Getting Ahead, and, “People are matched based on their talents and interests,” Scheck said.
The first couple of months in Circles are spent as an extended orientation of sorts, so that Leaders and Allies can become acquainted and comfortable with one another, explore the program and ultimately come away with a good fit. Once a match is in place, both parties determine the parameters of their particular Circle, such as whether to include their children, spouses and so forth.
The launch of Circles took place January 10, and Martin said it was the “most unique thing I’ve seen in my entire life.”
“Oh, my goodness, what didn’t we walk away with?” Martin recalled. “We had so much fun, getting to know everyone, playing games, it was like a family unit.”
Having come from generational poverty, Martin said she likely would have never met the people she has in Circles, that those in poverty typically don’t socialize with those who are not.
“In poverty, breaking it down to a day is generous; it’s moment to moment what we have to do,” Martin says. “We think, ‘OK, breakfast is done, now how do we get the kids to school? Then, how do we pick them up from school? Then it’s time for dinner. Do we have enough food?'”
Martin added that with poverty it’s much more than a lack of money …
“It’s more about having resources than finances, because sure, you need money, but you can be poor in other ways,” Martin said. “The middle class and wealthy may have these resources and the power to change, but they don’t know what people in poverty need. So it’s my job to tell them of barriers that are holding us back.”
Scheck said Circles always welcomes and encourages ad hoc Allies who may not be able to commit to partnering with a Leader but can offer their expertise, for example, with a speaking engagement. Professionals could include those from legal aid, health and child care, human resources (job search skills, mock interviewing) or even stopping by to read to children whose parents are attending a Circles meeting.
“It takes everyone to build a community together,” Martin said.
Additional information about Circles can be found through Scheck at 330-940-1105 or [email protected]