Left Hand Valley Courier - All Local, All The Time

By Dani Hemmat

Boulder County Circles Campaign works to eliminate poverty one family at a time


Dani Hemmat

Circles Coordinator Marnita Rodriguez explains that one in seven residents live in poverty in Boulder County.

We have a lot here in Boulder County—high quality of life, beautiful surroundings, friendly people, a high intellectual capacity and abundant cultural activities.

We also have poverty. Right now, one out of every seven Boulder County residents is living in poverty. That’s 44,000 neighbors, coworkers, and schoolchildren who are struggling to get by every day.

While it’s easy to equate poverty with the homeless person standing at the intersection, holding a clever sign, the sobering truth is that there are people that have housing and have one or more jobs who still cannot meet their family’s basic needs. Since being poor is in itself a full-time job—struggling to feed and clothe kids, scrambling to meet monthly bills, trying to work with social services—it seems an impossible task to break the cycle of poverty by oneself.

Enter Circles of Boulder County, part of a national campaign to eliminate poverty, one family at a time, using an innovative approach. Heads of a families seeking a way out of poverty commit to a 15-week Getting Ahead™ program, in which they learn the skills to become a Leader. Once a Leader, they are enrolled into the Circles program, where they take charge of their life with the help of two trained community volunteers, or Allies, who help the Leader realize his or her professional and personal goals through listening, networking and guidance.

After the 18-month program, successful participants average a 47 percent increase in earned income, 398 percent increase in assets, 141 percent increase in social capital, and a 56 percent decrease in welfare benefits. In 2017, all 18 of Boulder County’s Circles graduates were and still are 100 percent free from public assistance. It is a program that proves its effectiveness over and over again.

“Circles is a program that you feel, as a volunteer, that you actually make a difference.

said Lynn Klatt, a volunteer with the Boulder campaign. “You see the results.” Klatt said that volunteers spend a required minimum of five hours per month, often giving more of their time because they enjoy the process and results so much.

Cherri Oakley’s results speak for themselves. Cherri was pregnant when she moved to Boulder in 2012, at the same time going through a divorce after an abusive marriage. Her daughter was born three months prematurely, and Cherri had no choice but to rely on public assistance. Her sudden descent into poverty is a common one that could affect many of us—poverty caused by circumstances, such as health crises, divorces or job loss. Between taking care of her premature infant and trying to survive day to day, there was no room for Cherri to move beyond her current state of affairs.

“It is the tyranny of the moment,” noted Tracey Jones, a former Circles graduate, current board member and host of a KGNU radio show. “You just live in a crisis bubble.”

Cherri’s experience at Circles got her out of the poverty cycle. Now employed with Boulder County, she takes care of her daughter’s needs, and is free from the loneliness that was once a hallmark of her life in poverty.

“Poverty is very isolating because you live in crisis mode all the time,” said Cherri,”but Circles gives you time to make connections.”

Many participants maintain those connections long after they complete the program, with Allies and Leaders still meeting every week for coffee or shared hobbies. Some Allies even babysit their former Leaders’ children, because for many of the volunteers, they appreciate those connections as much as the Leaders.

“You get more out of volunteering than you put into it,” said Ann Huggins, a volunteer manager who has worked with Circles. Many volunteers choose to simply help with outreach a couple hours each month, securing things such as low-cost car repairs, job-improvement education

or employment prospecting in a program known as Opportunities to Compete (OTC).

The OTC program partners guarantee an interview to a Circles leader who meets the minimum job requirements for an open position. This not only gives a leader experience with the hiring process and levels the playing field, but also helps develop social and relationship capital. This happens when an upper- or middle-income hiring manager meets someone they may not have known who lives in their community.

Circles meets weekly at Vinelife Church in Gunbarrel. Meals and childcare are provided so that the Leaders can focus on brainstorming goals and personal development with their Allies. That's one less worry a week that makes a significant difference for the Leaders as they work toward their goals with the support of their Allies. And those goals are achieved, leaving poverty behind, one family at a time.

To be part of the community solution with Circles Campaign in Boulder County, contact Marnita Rodriguez at mrodriguez@bouldercounty.org or visit buildinglivablecommunites.org/circles


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