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Expanding the Circle: Circles of Hope program to attack poverty in Jackson County

fr circleshopeMonty Williams didn’t know a whole lot about the Circles of Hope program when he sat down to his first training four years ago. All he knew was that he wanted to do something to help people in poverty escape it, and the program had the full endorsement of Mountain Projects Community Action Agency Executive Director Patsy Dowling. 

“She says this has been the missing link that I have seen in all our social services,” Williams said. “It’s the thing that’s been missing.” 

So Williams went to the training in Wilkesboro, and right away he noticed something amazing. 

“They had all echelons, if you will, of the economic pyramid, from the bottom to the top, but they were all there working on the same problem and everybody taking an equal share of responsibility in trying to solve the problem,” Williams said. “I was sold from that point on.” 

The problem? Poverty. 

The Circles program, present in 23 of the United States, helps empower people in poverty to overcome the obstacles between them and a better life. So far, the Haywood County Circles Initiative has graduated 14 Circle Leaders, the title that people in poverty acquire when they enter the program. By March 2015, Sylva native Ann Melton hopes to bring Circles west to Jackson County. 

“We probably have about 40 people who are working hard, working diligently to make this happen,” the Haywood County resident said. 

Melton began spearheading the effort early this year, as she became increasingly involved in the Haywood chapter. As a Circles Ally, Melton got to know her Circle Leader, a single mother of a 4-year-old girl, better and better. She saw her Leader’s successes and saw the difference that the Circles program made in her life. 


What’s a Circle?

Unlike many other social programs, Circles of Hope puts the people it aims to help in the driver’s seat of their own destiny. The responsibility to get out of poverty is on them, and they have to apply to the program, which selects only those who are most motivated to work hard toward the goal. 

“The people are screened,” Melton said. “We’re looking for Circle Leaders, people who really want to work their way out of poverty. It’s not easy.”

Once selected, each class of Circle Leaders goes through a 12-week class, meeting once a week for two hours to set the groundwork for the road ahead. They get paid a stipend to go, with payment based on $12.50 per hour, and during that time they assess where they are in their life, who and what is in their life and why they want it to change. Meanwhile, Circle Allies go through a class of their own, familiarizing themselves with the challenges and social expectations that people in poverty often face. At the end of the training, each leader is matched up with two or three allies, and the work begins. 

“They want to be independent,” Melton said. “They want to have a job. They want to provide for their family. It’s a difficult program because they will be worse off than they were when they get off of food stamps.”

On average, a person in poverty has to quadruple their income to make up for the corresponding loss in government benefits, Melton said. So, while the end result is positive and empowering, the road to get there can feel like a setback rather than like progress. 

Forging a path to success involves an honest assessment of what the Leader’s strengths are, what the challenges of his or her environment are. Every week, Circle Leaders and Allies come together for a Community Group meeting, where they share a meal, talk about their individual challenges and learn more of the skills they’ll need to navigate the world.

For instance, Melton said, she asked her Leader what it was that she had always dreamed of being as a little girl. The woman had always wanted to be a teacher.

But there’s more to meeting a goal than just identifying it. Navigating the world of the middle class is a challenge in itself, and that’s where the Circle Allies come in. After hearing her Leader’s childhood dream, Melton marched over to Haywood Community College and secured a full scholarship. She talked to Haywood County Schools about finding her a teaching assistant job and got some information about teaching programs at Western Carolina University, where she could complete the path. 

“You’re just not giving them money,” Melton said, clarifying that Circle Leaders don’t receive any financial assistance from the program. “You’re giving them knowledge and information and support. The thing is if you or I needed something, we would probably know exactly who to go to to ask for whatever it was we needed. And if we didn’t know that person, we would know somebody who did know that person. These people don’t know how to do that.”

Circles connects them with people in the know, teaches them how to interview for jobs, how to dress. All those skills that middle-class people often absorb from those around them that are harder for people in poverty to come by. 

“The whole purpose of it is to provide a network, kind of like a safety net, around those in poverty so when something horrible happens they’re not completely knocked off their feet,” Williams said.  

Even with just a little over a year under its belt, the Haywood program has already seen some results. Two of the 14 graduated Circle Leaders have been able to purchase cars. An elderly Leader discovered that he could make money as an artist and is now debt-free through selling decoratively painted saws. Real change is happening. 


Across the county line

But it wasn’t long before Melton, who grew up in Sylva, began looking back across the county line. She soon found that Jackson County has poverty statistics even more startling than Haywood’s. In Jackson County, 19.5 percent of residents live below the poverty line, compared to 14.2 percent in Haywood and 16.8 percent statewide, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2011 estimate. 

“I just saw a real need,” Melton said. 

This winter, she began rallying the troops to get the necessary momentum to launch a Circles program in Jackson County. It’s a lot of work — there’s plenty more to getting a program started than finding some volunteers to serve as allies. In fact, the yet-to-be-launched Jackson Circles initiative has five separate committees, each with a different goal. 

“We basically need to have a strong infrastructure with the strong guiding coalition, which is the group of people who spearhead in moving it forward and making sure everything is in place,” said Millie Hershenson, Circles of Hope coordinator with Mountain Projects. 

There’s the community team, which is in charge of finding a place to meet and volunteers to provide meals and childcare for every week of the coming year. The resource team writes grants and solicits donations from churches and businesses. The recruitment team tries to find Circle Allies and Leaders, and the big-view team works on addressing all those challenges inherent to combating poverty. They look for people who can provide workshops on skills such as budgeting and interviewing, lining up a weekly class intended to give Circle Leaders the tools they need to succeed. 

“These teams are already in place,” Melton said. “These people are already meeting, they’re already working.”

So it’s happening. The ducks are in a row and the people in place, but the success of the program will depend on how many Circle Allies it can recruit — typically, there are more Circle Leader applicants than there are Allies to match them with — and what kind of volunteer service the planners can scare up to pitch in by cooking meals, watching children and providing buildings for the weekly meetings. 

But for those who have seen the program’s results already, nothing could be farther from the definition of “work.” 

“I think I get more from these people than I give,” Melton said. “I think most Allies would tell you the same thing.”

“You start understanding how blessed you have been because of circumstances that have favored you and helped you get to where you are,” agreed Williams, who leads the Haywood Circles initiative. “It gives me a new perception of someone who’s in poverty and what they’re like. They’re no different than you and I as far as human want and often not too much different from us in terms of who they are and what they believe.”

Which is the real magic of the Circles program: it brings people from opposite ends of the socioeconomic scale together as equals to solve the problem of poverty. The work is expanding in Western North Carolina, and Melton can’t wait to see it grow. 

“It’s really, truly been a God thing,” she said. “It’s an amazing program and I really want to see it be successful in Jackson County.”


Become an Ally

A six-hour training on Saturday, July 26 will give people interested in partnering with those in poverty the information they need to become a Circles Ally. The morning session, beginning at 10 a.m., will include a sit-down training to talk about what, exactly, the Circles program is, and after lunch future Allies will participate in poverty simulation scenarios. 

The scenarios are intended to help Allies understand what poverty feels like in the real world. What, for instance, would you do if you couldn’t cash a check because you didn’t have a bank account? Or how would you decide what to sell at the pawn shop to cover a looming bill? 

“It helps people think about the harsh realities of poverty,” said Millie Hershenson, Circles of Hope coordinator for Mountain Projects Community Action Agency. 

Those who have served as Allies already give the program their wholehearted approval and say that the main limit to its success is the number of people willing to serve as Allies. The commitment involves a two-hour weekly meeting with other Allies and Leaders in the Circles group for one year and a willingness to help the assigned Leader navigate the obstacles he or she will undoubtedly face in getting out of poverty. 

But, says Haywood County lead organizer Monty Williams, the responsibility is completely worth it. 

“Being an Ally is not such a horrible obligation,” he said. “It’s actually a wonderful opportunity.” 

RSVP by July 23 to 828.452.1447, ext. 134. 

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