It might be an ambitious goal, but a group of Marion County residents believes taking steps to end poverty is worth the time and energy.
The initiative is called Circles Marion County. Director Jackie Volbrecht said the premise behind the initiative is to involve the entire community in breaking down barriers so families who want a better life are empowered to achieve it.
Recently, Volbrecht and Jeremiah Lange, both of Marion, and Keith Harder of Hillsboro attended four days of hands-on training in Hesston. They listened to people who live in poverty but are working to improve their situation.
For some people, poverty is situational—events occur that create a severe economic impact. For others, it means overcoming a generational environment.
“One woman from generational poverty told us Circles saved her life,” Volbrecht said.
Circles volunteers attempt to provide a “life spark” by assisting people through non-judgmental friendship and honest communication, she said.
One woman on the panel of Circle leaders is now an ally to others with the hope of providing the assistance she received.
“One panelist told us she now can see things more clearly and what used to be obstacles are now challenges,” Volbrecht said. “Some were born with a silver spoon in their mouths, but she told us she was born with chalk, through no fault of her own.”
As part of their training, Volbrecht, Lange and Harder participated in a simulation that seeks to communicate the challenges of living with limited financial means.
Volbrecht’s scenario featured a mother who has breast cancer and isn’t employed; the father has a full-time job that generates $300 a week. His mother lives with the couple, as do a 23-year-old unemployed son, a 17-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son.
The family situation evolves during the simulation.
“They have one car and the kids need to get to school, so I leave the house, drop off the kids and go to work,” said Volbrecht, who played the role of the father.
If the father was late for work, it was understood he would be fired.
“When I get home,” she said, “(I find out) my eldest son has been arrested for doing drugs, his bail is $200—and did I mention, I don’t make enough to pay all my expenses, which means I need to do lots of juggling.”
As the father, Volbrecht decided not to bail out the son.
“Food is scarce and he’s another mouth to feed,” she said. “Then, grandma breaks her leg in Week 2, but I can’t miss work. So my daughter drops me at work and takes her grandmother to the clinic, where fees are $30.”
Volbrecht’s situation only gets worse when the daughter has a run-in with police.
“I almost decide to leave her in jail as well, but she convinces me that I need her to watch grandma and the 8-year-old,” she said. “Remember, my wife is very ill. I pay the $200 to get (the daughter) out and, in a fit of conscience I also bail out the oldest son and make him promise to get a job, which he does.”
But there’s more. Having used the electric-bill money to bail out the children, the father brings home a paycheck, but thinks it’s his. The electricity is cut off, the home is in chaos and the father “happily” goes to work—his only refuge.
“I decide to pawn my computer and some of the kids’ electronic devices and I get pennies on the dollar, but still don’t have enough to pay our rent,” Volbrecht said.
One hour into the role play, Volbrecht said she was so stressed as the father that she didn’t want to go home—and if there had been a bar in the simulation exercise, she would have spent her paycheck there.
“What began as a game of pretend turned into experiencing the tyranny of the moment I’d been reading about,” she said. “There’s nothing like that moment, for it repeats itself every day for those in poverty.”
When the hands-on training was completed, all three Marion County participants were asking the same question: What’s next?
“In light of our training, we think our hope to have our first Circles leader training in September is premature,” she said.
Instead, the organization will begin the task of implementing, recruiting and promoting the program for classes beginning in January.
Establishing a budget is part of the task, too.
“We will be an all-volunteer group, so one of the larger expenses we observed during training will not affect our situation,” Volbrecht said. “It might take us longer to reach our goals without full-time staff, but we believe (Circles) is the right initiative to end poverty and build community.”
About 18 months ago, Volbrecht and a few others discussed the daunting task of fighting poverty in Marion County. With no funding but a lot of hope and prayers, Volbrecht said the local Circles of Hope is the result.
At the time, the core group was looking to raise $10,000 so a few people could get the hands-on training. The task was daunting.
“I asked many people to pray about this,” she said, “and our prayers were answered when we found an avenue to fund our Circles project.”
The group has been meeting regularly since March 2011. In recent months, more people have joined the cause by attending meetings or agreeing to participate, Volbrecht said.
Circles Marion County is “Mad About Poverty” (MAP), and is now the “guiding coalition.”
The group plans to transition to evening meetings, and has selected Thursday night for the weekly get-togethers.
Volbrecht said the coalition has five teams: the resource team, big view team, recruitment team, economic stability team and community team.
Harder was selected to lead the resource team and Linda Ogden, recently retired executive director of Families and Communities Together, will lead the recruitment team.
“Once the community team chair comes forward we are ready to begin our work,” Volbrecht said.
For more information on how to support Circles Marion County, contact Volbrecht at firstname.lastname@example.org.