Living in poverty can make structure and stability elusive. For those who attend Circles of Marion County, however, there is something that can be counted on: At 6 p.m. every Thursday at Marion Presbyterian Church, a hot meal is waiting.
The program itself provides structure as well, with a goal-oriented class devoted to addressing not just budgetary issues, but the entire poverty equation, including social factors and family considerations.
While the program is firmly structured, the meals are less so. Pam Byer, who handles community outreach for Circles, is responsible for organizing the meal schedule.
“It’s wonderful,” she said. “People just volunteer. You’re feeding 50 people, so it’s not that cheap. I’m just very appreciative of the generosity that people have shown.”
Circles has members from Marion, Hillsboro, Peabody, and Florence. Byer said providing a meal runs between $50 and $100, depending on the dish.
Thursday’s meal was provided by Richard and Marilyn Reimer, who as life insurance policy holders for Thrivent Financial, participate in the company’s “action team” program, which provides a small stipend twice a year to fund charitable services.
Byer said feeding Circles is a popular mission project for churches. Effie Smith of Strassburg Baptist Church in rural Marion said their congregation wanted to be more involved in the community.
“We do it when we feel like we can get it done, and people aren’t so busy,” Smith said. “In the summer it’s pretty busy for a lot of the farmers.”
Smith said she had heard of the meal program from Lenore Dieter at a meeting of Taking Off Pounds Sensibly. Dieter also had helped provide meals in the past.
Strassburg Baptist provided a meal a month for three months this fall and last winter as well, Smith said.
Patty Wooldridge, who graduated from Circles last May and now attends as a “leader,” said the meal at the beginning of the meeting provides a welcoming atmosphere.
“It’s friendly,” she said. “It makes it feel more like fellowship.”
Wooldridge works two part-time jobs at Pizza Hut and Tabor College. Her first goal as a member of Circles was to empty a personal storage unit for which she was paying $37.50 a month. She said she had to overcome her obsessive-compulsive tendencies and admitted to being a bit of a hoarder.
Mark Rogers said problems like Wooldridge’s — ones that go beyond simple budgeting — are nearly universal among those in poverty.
That’s why Circles teaches its members about gaining support to build bonds and connections to opportunity to bridge into higher social classes.
Christina Hett of Marion got a degree in sociology from Emporia State University, and said Circles’ approach is what allows her to wholeheartedly support Circles, which she does as an individual through the provision of meals.
“The program itself is, to me, really sound,” she said. “Getting people out of poverty is really difficult because they have to change everything, and Circles addresses those issues. It’s a really holistic approach to that kind of change a person has to do.”
Hett said she had heard of Circles when she lived in McPherson, and heard of the Marion County group while she was involved with Families and Communities Together.
She combined her passion for cooking with her appreciation for what she sees as a helpful program.
“Nowadays everybody eats processed food, so an old-fashioned, home-cooked meal might be something people don’t get,” she said. “It’s something where I can give back to my community through something I personally love to do.”
Hett said she and her husband, Neil, slaughter their own cows, about one a year. Once, Hett said they had about 50 pounds of beef left over and needed to find a use for it. That’s when it occurred to her to use it for a Circles meal.
“We had a whole bunch of steaks,” she said.
She’s also made spaghetti and meatballs, chicken and biscuits, and cold-cut sandwiches. She plans to do Salisbury steaks with mushroom gravy over Himalayan rice for her next meal.
Of the 50 or so that attend Circles meetings regularly, about half are children of adults taking the course. Hett said they can be picky eaters. For one boy in particular, Hett always brings peanut butter and jelly to make him a sandwich because it’s practically all he’ll eat.
“When I gave him the peanut butter and jelly, his little face lit up. It was like I gave him a T-bone steak,” Hett said. “But he won’t eat that.”
Hett said she loves the feeling of making others happy by connecting with them over food. Wooldridge said the food makes the group feel more at home.
“It’s like being part of a big family,” Wooldridge said. “And every week is Thanksgiving.”