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Circles of Hope aim to alleviate poverty

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Friday, May 1, 2009

By Mary Caffrey Knapke

SIDNEY DEANERY — Call it speed dating with a twist. The popular trend of timed “round-robin” dating provides an opportunity for people to meet and, in a few short minutes, determine if they would like to get to know each other better. At a recent gathering in Troy, the people participating in “speed dating” were not in search of romance, but rather the people they might like to have in their Circle of Hope.

The event was part of a recent Circles of Hope meeting, where people are building relationships across class and race lines in an effort to alleviate poverty in their community. Parishioners from St. Patrick Catholic Church in Troy are part of this effort.

Pat Smith, coordinator of adult faith formation at St. Patrick, has been active with Circles of Hope in a variety of functions over the past several years. Currently, she is part of the group’s guiding coalition, which oversees the development and implementation of program initiatives.

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Circles of Hope leaders and allies participated in a version of “speed dating” at a recent meeting in Troy. (CT/Mary Caffrey Knapke)

Smith said the success of the program stems from its unique approach to fighting poverty. Motivated individuals, couples or families who want to work their way out of poverty become Circle leaders. They complete a 16-week course called Getting Ahead and attend Circle meetings. In addition, leaders are paired with three to four allies, community members who serve as resources and friends. Allies also attend Circle meetings, serving four to 10 hours of volunteer time a month. Both leaders and allies commit to the initiative for about a year.

The Circles Campaign was initiated by the Move the Mountain Leadership Center in Ames, Iowa. Thirty-four communities are currently active in 16 states. In Ohio active Circles exist in Columbus, Lima, Springfield and Troy; other Circles are being formed in Dayton, Tipp City and Wooster.

In most communities, Circles is sponsored by a nonprofit organization or other aid agency. In Troy, however, the program is sponsored by Partners in Hope, a consortium of 16 local churches. Partners in Hope coordinates assistance to low-income families and has been active in Troy for 19 years. Circles of Hope is just one of the organization’s ministries.

Allison DeHart, director of Partners in Hope, said that Circles was initiated in Troy in an effort to “try to develop a ministry that would move beyond meeting the basic needs of families when they came into the office in a crisis situation. We wanted to try to build relationships that would lead to greater self-sufficiency and help families move out of poverty.”

Smith said that for people living in poverty, positive relationships can make a real difference. “They have people they can turn to that can help guide them in the right direction and give them that hope, give them that feeling that they can make it,” she said. “They’ve got people in their life that care about them, and it’s just so neat to see how [leaders and allies] have grown together. They’ve built a relationship.”

One of Smith’s responsibilities is to schedule guest speakers for Circles of Hope meetings. Some topics have included consumer credit counseling, education, finances and budgeting, neighborhood safety, nutrition, parenting, self-esteem and stress management.

DeHart said the sessions are delivered in an “intimate, kitchen-table type of experience. It’s not like a classroom with a teacher. It’s small-group discussion and facilitation.”

Since Circles of Hope was initiated in Troy two years ago, a total of 13 Circle leaders have graduated from the Getting Ahead course. The first group of seven is nearing the completion of their commitment, while the six members of the second group will soon begin to work with their allies. Individuals who become Circle leaders often are referred by agencies or churches and complete an application process before beginning the program.

Circle leaders are also asked to give back to their community any way they can. Some leaders contribute food for weekly meals, while others now serve on the group’s planning team or other committees. One former participant now works with Partners in Hope as an AmeriCorps volunteer.

“I think that [Circle leaders] have this motivation now and this hope. This hope I think is something that really gives them the drive to continue. They can make it. And they have the support of other people to turn to, to give them that encouragement,” Smith said.

DeHart said that “when people have personal friendships with someone in poverty, they’ll be much more motivated to advocate for change in their community. It makes it easier for low-income families to gain greater self-sufficiency.”

She continued, “a lot of times, the system that’s supposed to help families can be very frustrating and not empowering, and so this is a way of building community around people and helping them achieve their dreams and their goals.”

Joyce Croft, also a parishioner at St. Patrick, coordinates the meals that are provided for leaders and allies prior to each meeting. She works with each of Partners in Hope’s participating churches, as well as community organizations and businesses to organize everything from donations of food to the volunteers who serve the weekly meals.

“It’s encouraging to see the Circle leaders setting goals and succeeding,” Croft said. “They’ve bonded with their allies. The program runs very smoothly, and there’s a lot of enthusiasm.”

Recently, about 30 people from across the U.S. and Canada visited Troy to learn more about the way Circles of Hope is implemented here.

“In just two years since we started our program, now people are learning from us,” DeHart said. For more information about Circles of Hope, contact Allison DeHart at 937-335-0448 or adehartpih@woh.rr.com.

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