By: Katie Sobiech
In our own community, poverty exists. Many of us see it everyday. Maybe it’s the homeless man holding up a cardboard sign on the corner that you pass everyday on your way to work… or maybe it’s the single mom working 3 jobs just trying to make ends meet. No one knows the secret stories of the lives of these men and women who are merely getting by, day by day, but they each have a story.
Some want to stick to the corners, but there are others who want to work hard. Bridges out of Poverty (B.O.P.) makes a way for those who are willing to work for themselves.
Homeless to Hopeful
Jane Christy moved to America from England 20 years ago, hoping to live the American Dream. Her fairytale ended just 18 months after moving here and marrying.
“The relationship fizzled and I had nowhere to go,” she recalls.
This led her and her 10 year old daughter to knock on the doors of the Battered Women’s Shelter. Unfortunately they were overflowing and had to release Christy and her daughter soon after.
“When they told us we had to leave I ended up at the Haven of Rest,” she said, “I had no resources, nothing.”
It was at the Haven of Rest that her life turned around.
Yvette McMillan, Director at the Harvest Home (the women’s division of the Haven of Rest), introduced Christy to B.O.P. and the Getting Ahead Classes.
“Bridges out of Poverty is a lifeline for people that are in situations that they think they can do nothing about,” Christy said.
“Miss Yvette was my mentor. She brought out things in me that I just never knew I could do. She gave me confidence. Yvette McMillan is definitely my hero,” Christy continued.
The Truth about Homelessness
Stereotypes and labels often haunt the homeless, many of them not true.
“When you ask most people why they think people are homeless they’ll say ‘Because they are bums, they don’t care, they don’t want to work’. This is not true. We have women from all walks of life,” Christy said.
Women who’ve stayed at the Harvest Home in the past couple of years have come due to their homes being repossessed, dissolution of their marriages, and domestic violence situations.
“These people don’t ask to be homeless. One day everything can be going along okay and the next day you’re just bewildered,” Christy said.
She says she would have never imagined being homeless, and her family back in England would be shocked if they knew.
A Second Chance
The Getting Ahead classes at the Harvest Home have given women a second chance at financial freedom, instead of bondage.
“Some of them want to go back to school, some haven’t gotten a GED, some have a PhD but have landed in a situation they need to recover from,” Christy said, “Getting Ahead shows them that they aren’t the only one’s and that they can get out of this.”
Once graduated, Getting Ahead staff connects the women to different area agencies, creating new opportunities.
“We have people come in from different agencies to talk to the girls and answer their questions on what their resources are, what they can offer them, and where they can go,” Christy explained.
There is also mentoring after graduation.
“You don’t just go to a class and that’s it, you’re left. You still have people that you can call and keep in touch with, so you’re not just cut off. There’s always someone you can call for help,” she said.
The Haven of Rest, located next to the Harvest Home offers opportunities as well.
“I think people are really unaware of the different classes and things that they do,” Christy said.
“The Haven of Rest has over 700 volunteers, so there are some good people there who give their time and talents to help others. It’s pretty amazing. They pushed me to my limits in a good way. Things I thought I’d love to do came true. They had faith in me that I could do it and it was an incredible journey. I’m going to cry (tears of joy),” she said.
Connections for Life
“We’re a bunch of friends now,” Christy said of herself and the Getting Ahead graduates and mentors.
The graduates are planning to start their own group at the Haven of Rest once a month to stay in touch.
Connections are key in building Bridges out of Poverty.
Christy has had a stable job for two years now at the Haven of Rest as nighttime supervisor and facilitator for the Getting Ahead group.
Two Getting Ahead groups have graduated through the Harvest Home and there are more to come. Plans are currently being made for it to enter the men’s division of the Haven of Rest as well. The idea is slowly spreading and creating a priceless change in lives.
Aside from the Getting Ahead classes is the B.O.P. Training. The B.O.P. training offers insights into the mentalities and mindsets of the different social classes.
Kaye Gauder, Executive Director of Akron Pregnancy Services (A.P.S.), found this training crucial, especially for those working in non-profits and social service agencies, and who interact with the poor.
“Bridges out of Poverty is really to acquaint people with the whole process and difference in thinking between generational poverty, middle class and upper class,” Gauder explained.
“I think the program is excellent,” she continued.
The problem is that the middle class often doesn’t understand the thinking of those in poverty. They don’t get the mindset. This training allows them to step inside of the world and mind of those in poverty.
“It helps you bridge a gap to not be judgmental but to really understand how someone from generational poverty is thinking. You realize that the job is really to help them change their thinking pattern,” she explained.
One practical example Gauder has found at A.P.S. is that those in poverty will wait until they are on their very last diaper until they go buy new diapers. This is because people in poverty don’t think “future”, they think “present”.
“The goal is to help them look further down the road than just today,” Gauder said.
If you ask a person in poverty if they can move in a day, they will say yes. A person in middle or upper class will most likely say no.
“It’s a piece that anyone working with the poor really need to have so that they can genuinely affect their lives and help them navigate their world,” she said, “To get a job and hold a job you’ve got to understand the middle class mindset. They need the Getting Ahead piece and we (A.P.S.) would like to offer that,” Gauder said.
“We work with these young moms who want to get off the system and be able to provide for their kids.”
Gauder also sees the training as a way to bring Para-church organizations together to help each other.
“That’s the neat part, to see these organizations come together to help each other. We all have the same goal,” she said.
OPEN M also offers the Getting Ahead Classes, and A.P.S. is soon to get on board.
OPEN M is the lead agency in this area for B.O.P. They offer services for the area’s poor and are most well known for their free clinic.
Many hear about the program by word of mouth, and there is no lack of attention to this program.
“These individuals are really looking to get out of where they are now,” Hannah Nitz, Social Worker at OPEN M and facilitator of Getting Ahead, said.
“A lot of programs or social workers are mandated, or there are incentives like you get housing, but no one who comes here is mandated or has to do this,” Nitz said, “All of them that are here want to be here. It’s a joy as an agency to be able to help individuals who want to change where they are at and are motivated, but just don’t have the resources or knowledge to do so.”
Nitz bridges the gap by providing them with the knowledge and resources they need.
So far OPEN M has graduated three groups.
The newest group began in early January; others will follow in April, July and October.
“Our whole agency really supports individuals who make it through the program. We offer them a wide variety of other services and really try to take the graduates under our wing once they’ve made it and try to help them reach their goals,” Nitz said, “It’s been wonderful.”
A Mentor’s Perspective
Margaret Payne became a mentor as a part of a local service project, and she plans to do it again in the future.
Through this experience she’s learned much about poverty that she had not been aware of before.
“You really appreciate the different life experiences of the women. It’s not a cookie-cutter kind of thing, like they were on drugs. There are a lot of other reasons they end up in poverty,” Payne said.
“I think it’s important for folks to become aware of the systematic barriers that exist in Summit County to prevent women from being able to get out of poverty. There are some real serious barriers and hoops they have to go through to get assistance,” she continued.
Some of these hoops include not knowing what resources are available, what agencies provide what and how to get those services.
“It makes it very difficult unless you have a structure in place like the Harvest Home and staff that can help you negotiate all of that,” she said.
Lessons Learned on Both Sides
Both those in poverty and the mentors take something away from the group meetings.
“We (the mentors) learned the different styles of communication between social classes,” Payne said.
They brought in speakers from Akron Urban League and Summit County Community Action Council to connect the ladies to legal services and other types of help.
Providing information about community involvement and engagement was crucial.
“I think it was successful,” Payne said of her group, “It was a structured opportunity for the ladies to sit down and actually work on a plan for what their next steps were going to be. We were there to provide support as they implemented the plans they developed.”
“That was key – they had to develop their own plan,” she continued.
The mentors have maintained phone contact with the ladies since the program ended. The women in poverty are free to contact them whenever needed.
B.O.P. is currently looking for more mentors, the more mentors, the more people can be helped.
If you are interested in B.O.P., Getting Ahead, or becoming a mentor please contact OPEN M at 330.434.0110.