I learned in my Getting Ahead Class that there are two types of poverty, situational and generational. Situational poverty is when your life is going along fine, you may not be rich but you are meeting all your needs, then some event happens that throws you into poverty. The event can be a sudden illness resulting in unexpected medical expenses, job loss, or the significant downturn in the economy. Generational poverty is when you are born in to poverty and that is all you know growing up.
As you can imagine, situational poverty is easier to escape then generational poverty, as you already have all the tools you need to succeed and just need to climb some hurdles. People in generational poverty have the same hurdles to climb and more, but no one has ever showed them how. They are living in a world that runs on middle class values and attitudes and they do not know how to properly navigate those waters.
I grew up in generational poverty. My mom is 55 years old and still works two jobs and barely makes ends meet. She has worked two jobs since I was a baby and I am now 38, I also work two jobs a lot of the time, yet I have no health benefits, I live in Public Housing and my family receives Food Stamps. How is this possible, you ask? I would like to know myself; here is my story.
When I was in high school I excelled at academics. Although I was poor and living with relatives in foster care, I was told I could go to college and “make something of myself.” Through many thousands of dollars in student loans and working full time at the Student Union I did go to college and graduated with a double Bachelors of Science degree. I thought that was it, my ticket to success. I was wrong! While college gave me the scholarly knowledge that I paid good money to learn, it taught me nothing of the life skills I needed to survive on my own. Skills I did not learn while I was growing up in poverty, like how to budget or use credit responsibly.
After graduating from college I had the urge to travel, see the country and escape the small town life of New Hampshire. This adventure brought me to Boulder, Colorado. Once here I took the first job I could find, a convenience store clerk. This was followed by other retail positions I took just to pay the bills. Soon I met and fell in love with the man who would become my husband. He was living his life day-to-day, carefree with no responsibilities and that sounded pretty good to me since I was still burnt out from earning a dual degree in four years while working a full time job. That carefree life did not last long because I soon became pregnant with my daughter.
When my daughter was seven months old we moved back to New Hampshire. I took a job at the factory where my mom has worked since I was in elementary school, and I stayed there for over four years. It was by no means a cushy job. The pay was low, there were frequent shutdowns and lay-offs and we still weren’t making ends meet. My husband was unhappy in New Hampshire, the weather there made living with his disability (degenerative disc disease) extremely painful. In 2006 we decided that it would be better for our family, which had grown to include a son, to move back to Colorado.
We stayed with friends who let us live in their basement until we could find a place of our own. Since moving back, I have only been able to find temporary or seasonal work. I keep hearing what a wonderful employee I am and how they would love to keep me on, if only they had the funding. I keep hoping with each new temporary job that maybe things will work out and I will be able to stay. To have medical insurance, vacation days and just the security of knowing the paychecks will keep coming would make an enormous difference in our lives.
As I mentioned earlier, I live in Public Housing. Through the Family Self Sufficiency program I was offered the chance to take a 16-week course. This course was called Getting Ahead. I learned so much about myself in this class and the situation I was in. I am not alone in this, many other people are stuck in this circumstance just like me and it is not all our fault. I learned it was not merely the poor decision- making of those living in poverty that kept them down, but the system designed to help them as well. Our social service system in this country is a good thing and we truly need it, however, the way it operates is not conducive to helping people leave poverty, but in some ways, keeps them trapped there.
That is where the Circles Campaign comes into play. Circles is a national movement to end poverty in our country in our lifetime, a bold undertaking indeed. Circles is a high impact strategy to end poverty that involves the whole community. A Circle consists of two types of people, a Circle Leader who has taken the Getting Ahead Class and two to four Allies or volunteers from the community. First, the Allies are trained in the Bridges out of Poverty philosophy. Second, the Allies are trained to support and empower the Circle Leaders they will be working with. They are shown that they are not there to solve their Circle Leaders problems or to tell them what to do; they are there to help them along the path to change what they have chosen for themselves.
The Circles Campaign is something I deeply believe in. I have been involved in the campaign for over a year now. After I attended the Getting Ahead Class, I co-facilitated another Getting Ahead class through WorkForce Boulder County. Since then, I have become a member of the Circles Guiding Coalition and the co-chair of the Circles recruitment team. I am currently working at Community Action Programs as an intern for the summer working specifically on Circles, and it has been a wonderful experience. It’s so exciting to be in on the ground floor and involved in crucial decision-making for the Campaign. It is great to have a program here in Boulder County that is so committed to ending poverty and one that listens to the voices of those in poverty. It is not a “do as I say” philosophy, rather one of empowerment and one that I believe will actually work.
As for me personally, I am still living in poverty but I am gaining the knowledge and skills I need to move towards self-sufficiency. Even when my internship ends in September, I will remain committed to Circles and will become a Circle Leader myself in Lafayette. The knowledge, skills, and connections I have gained since becoming involved in Circles has become invaluable to me. They have given me hope that I will not always be living in poverty and that my children are not doomed to this life as well, and can grow up to be successful adults.
A Success Story
As the “Senior Tax Worker” for Boulder County, I was asked to write a brief article about one of the Circles’ participants. I looked forward to meeting Amalia in downtown Boulder at the Dushanbe Tea House. When Amalia approached, my middle class stereotypes of poverty were immediately dispelled. In walked an attractive, well dressed, well-spoken young woman with a bright smile. She quickly decided against sitting on the “Topsham” – the Tajikistan style bed – in favor of a hard back chair at a table. “I’m still recovering from back surgery,” she explained.
Our conversation revealed that Amalia graduated with a Master’s degree in 2009 and that she searched relentlessly for work in her field. “Overqualified and not enough experience” accompanied the constant rejections. As a full-time student, juggling part-time jobs and an internship while caring for her son, Amalia recalls, “life was challenging.”
She found odd jobs baby sitting and as a temp in the Elections office. She also volunteered for Mental Health Partners and Boulder Valley Women’s Health where she eventually was hired to work part-time. At same time, she continued to seek employment with Boulder County Housing and Human Services in her desired field. During that time the Circles Campaign supported her through its “Opportunity to Compete” agreement with the County. This is an agreement that allows Circle leaders who meet the minimum qualifications of a job to be interviewed. Amalia was hired at the end of September by Boulder County Housing and Human Services and has been working 20 hours a week with benefits. Unlike many people in poverty Amalia was fortunate to know about available resources. She felt she “had one foot in each world.”
To meet the Circles Campaign requirements, she participated in the “Getting Ahead” course, graduated, and became a “Leader” and was matched with two “Allies.” Although because of unforeseen circumstances, Amalia lost one of her Allies throughout the process. Her allies worked with her on accomplishing the goals that she identified for herself and have become constant friends. Amalia says, “The magic of Circles is really about relationships. I now know that I have people who are thinking of me, who support me. I can check in with them whenever.” In addition, help is offered by other allies and special Circles’ teams. “When I had back surgery they brought us dinners and kept my spirits up.”
Amalia says “I looked forward to the weekly dinners that Circles provides for leaders and allies. The camaraderie, the speakers, the programs all offer real support and keep me connected.
My current employment goal is to secure full-time work at a living wage. Thanks to the Circes Campaign I'm now part of a diverse community where I feel supported, appreciated and connected.”
By Sandy Hale
Sandy grew up in the ghetto of New York City and has dealt with numerous dysfunctions of friends and family. She always felt that she was not going to be like them. She wanted to help them and to live a different life. For two years in her life, 19 years ago, Sandy too had issues with drugs and alcohol. Through prayers and will power, she was able to pull herself together and realized that once a person starts to use drugs and alcohol, it is not easy for them to walk away from this addiction.
Sandy thought her parents had a choice and they chose not to change their life. She now realizes this is actually easier said than done. She lost both parents due to drugs and alcohol.
Sandy knows what it is like being an addict; homeless; a victim of domestic violence, child abuse and neglect; and also a person who overcame all this and is currently a contributing member of society. She is proud of her daughters who are in college and her disabled son who graduated from high school, works, and is able to be independent in spite of his ADHD. Through her connections in the Circles Campaign, Sandy was interviewed for and received a job with the City of Longmont.
Sandy knows what it is like to be on both sides of addiction and has worked with people with dual diagnoses and people who, in their heart, want to change but are unable to do so. Her desire is to be there for them when the light actually turns on and they truly decide to work on their recovery. Sandy has taken all of the CAC I, II, and III certification classes except two. She is attending Metro State College of Denver and studying Social Work with a minor in Human Services.
“I have been through a lot in my life and have overcome adverse situations. I have done personal growth work and I am resilient. I believe my experiences make me a positive contributor to the community,” stated Sandy. Sandy believes the most important thing she has learned from Circles is her way of thinking. “Circles has helped me change the way I see the world,” she says. “I have more confidence now than I’ve ever had.”
Success and Education
Larissa became a Circle Leader almost a year ago. She has two children and is a single mother. When she became a Circle Leader, she was on various public assistances, including Section 8 housing, food stamps, and CHP insurance for her children. She relied heavily on the support services provided by Sister Carmen Community Center. Larissa received an undergraduate degree in molecular biology, but lacked the resources to get more “lab work” time under her belt.
As a new Circle Leader, she was working for minimum wage at a pre-school part-time. She had all but given up on any idea of working in her area of study. Larissa was lucky enough to be paired with an Ally who is a professor of molecular biology. This Ally convinced Larissa that she could still work to become a molecular biologist and together they were able to create some lab-time opportunities. This got Larissa back in to the spirit of the work she loved.
Through the support of a member of Circles Income & Education Team, Larissa was able to apply for, interview with, and ultimately land a job as a research technician at a biotech lab. This began as a part-time job and she has been able to parlay it into a full-time job with benefits and a future that includes a career path. Larissa has been able to remove herself from all public assistance, except for Section 8 housing, which she plans to be able to remove herself from in the near future. On a personal level, Larissa had a goal of increasing her exercise and improving her diet. She has made great strides in both areas, and is looking and feeling great!
Farmers market partners to help with healthy choices
Tammy Gutierrez called it quits on a destructive relationship last October, and with that, she also lost her permanent home. Now, Gutierrez said she stays with friends, and when that’s not an option, she sleeps on Longmont’s streets.
Nutrition, she admits, isn’t always a priority. “The main thing is finding a place to rest,” she said. But Gutierrez said she started thinking about healthy eating habits Saturday afternoon as she bought corn, cucumbers and cherries at the Longmont Farmer’s Market. “I’m like a little kid shopping over here,” she chuckled, showing off a new bar of goat milk soap.
Her groceries came from a pilot project the OUR Center and Longmont Farmer’s Market launched Saturday. Participants in the OUR Center’s Getting Ahead program — a series of classes that teach low-income residents to become more self-sufficient — each received $25 in farmer’s bucks to spend at the Farmer’s Market. Longmont Farmer’s Market manager Cindy Torres said the project introduces the participants to how they can eat healthy and support their local growers, even with limited resources.
It’s also a chance to interact with new people and socialize, said Getting Ahead co-facilitator Robert Topping, who himself graduated from the program a year and a half ago. “Low-income and resource-challenged families tend to isolate from their communities,” he said. To prepare for Saturday’s shopping excursion, Farmer’s Market organizers spoke to the class last week about the nutritional and cost value of local produce, Topping said. The market accepts food stamps — something Topping said he hopes will motivate the class to come back.
Getting Ahead is a 15-week program that shows participants how they can break the cycle of poverty in their lives. Nonprofits and human services organizations in Boulder County host the classes, which are part of the county’s anti-poverty initiative called Bridges Out of Poverty. At the end of the summer, about 300 people will have graduated from the program, according to a county press release. Gutierrez enrolled in Getting Ahead after an OUR Center case worker referred her to the program. She’s set to graduate in August and plans to enroll in adult education classes this fall to get her GED. The OUR Center is on its third Getting Ahead group. When the 12 students in the current class graduate, 37 people will have passed through the program, said OUR Center executive director Edwina Salazar.
Linda Collinson, an unemployed electrical engineer, and Joe Lopez, who repairs gas lines for Xcel Energy, braved Saturday’s scorching temperatures to buy their groceries. Both are residents at the Inn Between, a Longmont transitional housing complex.
The couple, who are dating, pooled their money together and bought cherries, apricots, peach pie, steaks and souvenir T-shirts. Neither had ever been to the farmer’s market before Saturday. “The bus doesn’t come by here,” Collinson said.
So what’s for dinner? “I’m thinking about those steaks,” Lopez said
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