Marion County can be an isolated place, and sometimes residents feel like the location has immunity from negative parts of life.
“We have blinders on,” Marion Presbyterian Church pastor Jeremiah Lange said. “We live our lives without being affected by people.”
Poverty is real in Marion County. With her job trying to obtain grants to assuage poverties affects, Families and Community Together Coordinator Linda Ogden witnesses poverty on a daily bases.
It manifests itself in families living without heat in the winter, or running water all year. There are programs in Marion County school districts to donate small snacks to children on weekends; they would go hungry without the miniature prepackaged containers of apple sauce and yogurt.
People have lost their jobs. Many have unreliable vehicles and therefore cannot receive government assistance; they cannot drive to apply for the 20 jobs a week necessary to receive welfare.
“It sets you up to do ludicrous things,” Ogden said of the situation.
While the numbers of people living in poverty continues to increase in small percentage increments, Ogden said the more staggering development is how desperate some people are becoming. She sees more people in her office asking for Marion County food bank vouchers, people who would have been too proud to ask for assistance last year.
This past year, Ogden knows of multiple families who moved out of the county to live in homeless shelters.
“People don’t have safe places to live,” Ogden said. “They’re close to being out on the street.”
A group of nine Marion County leaders have been inspired to tackle this problem. They gathered after a Sunday school class titled “A Hole in the Gospel.” The members of the guiding coalition leadership team includes Ogden, Marion County Parents as Teachers Coordinator Lori Soo Hoo, Lange, Hillsboro Trinity Mennonite Church Pastor Jeff Wintermote, teacher Doni Lange, Marion PRIDE president Pam Bowers, Carol Broadstreet, Ruth Hodson-Reed, and Jackie Volbrecht.
With a combination of administrative, faith, and practical skills, the leadership group decided to select an overarching program to defeat poverty — Circles of Hope, a national program based out of Springfield, Ohio.
Why Circles of Hope? Because it works. Forty percent of Circles participants find a way out of poverty after joining the program, according to a study by Iowa State University.
Volbrecht mentioned that the program — there are already Circles groups started in Newton and McPherson — has decreased the need for government assistance by $490,000 nationwide.
“Even if a starving child doesn’t touch your heart, the economics will touch your brain,” Volbrecht said.
Volbrecht, a recent new resident at Marion County Lake, describes herself as walking among giants in the leadership coalition. Ogden respectfully disagrees. Volbrecht has been a driving force behind the movement, using her previous volunteer experience as a guide.
Volbrecht has often volunteered in Wichita — from soup kitchens to English-as-a-second-language teaching. Many times, she has seen what has not worked in other programs.
She outlined Circles of Hopes success, and it is the simple aspects of the program that make it different. Those in poverty are the Circle group leaders, allies surround the person or family. It is an active role where the leaders take it upon themselves to improve their situation.
“It’s a program to help people be the best people they can be,” Lange said.
Even the language of the program is an important end for comfort, Volbrecht said. Other programs use words like mentors for those in volunteer roles. An ally speaks to those people being in the background.
Another distinction for Circles of Hope is that allies will not be overwhelmed. Training is one of the leadership coalitions first steps, currently planned for July.
“I wanted to be an ESL teacher,” Volbrecht said of previous experience. “I had 64 students and no training.”
Circles of Hope can be practical and informative, but not easy. Leaders need 18 months of once a week meetings and classes to graduate from the program.
Part of these classes is providing skilled training for leaders to obtain jobs. Another piece of the program is using a network of allies as resources leaders may be lacking.
Volbrecht and Ogden met with Newton Cirlces of Hope representatives. They gave an example of the programs impact with a blind man who had not seen an eye doctor in years. After setting him up for an appointment, the doctor found that the blindness was curable and a procedure was performed to repair his sight. It dramatically improved the man’s quality of life.
A less dramatic example in Marion County is transportation. Ogden and Soo Hoo both mentioned problems with transportation, which could be rectified with connections.
“In wealth, it’s not about what you do but who you know,” Volbrecht said.
Ogden mentioned that the program could connect leaders with people in the community, which could create career and business opportunities.
“It’s very connected to economic development,” Ogden said.
Circles of Hope is still in its infant stages in Marion County. The coalition leadership team is planning fund raising efforts through 2012, the goal is to raise $20,000, although less money may be required because the cost of training continues to decrease, Ogden said. The team planned for $10,000 to go toward training. The Circles classes themselves cost $3,600.
The host site of Circles of Hope is Marion Presbyterian Church. The coalition leadership team will host a meeting at noon on Monday.
“God has our back,” Volbrecht said. “He gives us marching orders.”