A celebration of hope

Circle leaders celebrate training completion
By Shelby Harrell | Feb 10, 2014
Photo by: Shelby Harrell The Circles of Hope training graduates show a big smile during their graduation celebration. Pictured, from left, is Murna Wright, Amy Finn, Amanda Rich, Brandy Cook, George Michal, Tonya Cagle, Christa McCracken, Sarah Lanning and Ricky Auler. Not pictured are Cathy Rollings and Eric McElroy.

Nine Haywood County residents forgot about their stressful lives and took their place in the spotlight Tuesday night during the first Circles of Hope training class graduation.

Circles of Hope is a program that helps families get completely out of poverty and builds new systems of support. Participants in the program, known as “circle leaders” are people who are determined to change their lives.

For the past several months, nearly a dozen circle leaders have been learning ways to emerge from poverty and achieve self-sufficiency. Now that their initial training is complete, the leaders are ready to start making changes in their lives.

As the leaders officially begin the Circles program, they will receive a group of allies to help mentor them as they attempt to reach their goals. A Circles of Hope ally is a volunteer who has received training to help families get completely out of poverty.

Words of gratitude

To celebrate their training completion, a potluck dinner and graduation ceremony was held at the Haywood County Senior Resource Center.

During the ceremony, Millie Hershenson, Circles of Hope Coordinator, awarded each leader a certificate of completion and asked them to say a few words about the training. The leaders received their certification of training with Career Connections through Haywood Community College. Career Connections offers free services to help job seekers secure employment including skills assessments, career counseling, resume and cover letter writing, and assistance with applications.

Ricky Auler, a circle leader who joined the program with his fiancé Cathy Rollings, was the first to speak. Rollings was not able to give a speech because she had to leave early for work.

“I never thought that anyone cared for me,” Auler told the crowd. “So for me to hear that people like DSS (Department of Social Services) and Mountain Projects actually care — it’s a big deal. I thank everyone who was involved with getting it started.”

Auler is looking forward to attending Haywood Community College in the fall to finish his degree in electrical engineering. Rollings is currently attending HCC full time.

Brandy Cook was next in line to be recognized.

“It’s been really great,” Cook said. “It’s taught me to be more organized, and just make my life better.”

Tonya Cagle, a mother of an infant and 3-year-old, was able to receive her GED last month thanks to the support she received through Circles of Hope. It’s an accomplishment she’s proud of and credits her success to being a circle leader.

“Everyone has a voice, it’s just up to you to use the tools you’re given,” Cagle said. “This program has really opened my eyes. I can’t thank you all enough.”

Cagle is planning to attend HCC in the summer to study criminal justice. She said her Circles of Hope ally would help her babysit her two daughters.

"Being here has given me a lot of inspiration,” Amy Finn said when she was called in front of the crowd. “I look forward to the next journey.”

Sarah Lanning was teary-eyed when she spoke of her gratitude toward the program.

“Anyone and everyone here is so great and it has been inspirational,” Lanning said.

When Hershenson called Christa McCracken’s name, she came up front and flipped her hair for the cameras with a big smile.

“Everyone has been so loving and supportive,” McCracken said. “I didn’t know if I would fit in, but I just felt so comfortable here. It made me learn more about the community and I love it."

When George Michal claimed his certificate, his words were simple — a trait that was different from his typical goofy, “life of the party” demeanor.

“I came here with nothing, and now I have a pocket full," he said. "God bless."

Michal is going back to HCC in the spring to pursue a degree in welding.

Amanda Rich was next in line, and she expressed her gratitude for Circles of Hope.

“Circles (of Hope) is a reminder that there are still good people out there,” Rich said. “I’m looking forward to the next journey.”

A teary-eyed Murna Wright received her certificate and thanked everyone who had helped her get through her training.

“It has been a long journey,” Wright said while holding back a sob. “I just appreciate everyone who has been there."

Eric McElroy is also a training graduate, but he was unable to attend the ceremony, Hershenson said.

A hopeful future

Monty Williams, the Circles of Hope Big View Team Leader, played a crucial role in creating Circles of Hope by essentially not giving up on the program, even when years passed and the program seemed unlikely to happen.

“You don’t know what it’s meant to me to hear what all they have to say after waiting four years,” Williams said, referring to the circle leaders. “This is going to be the best thing to happen to Haywood County.”

Deborah Winkler, a Circles of Hope ally, gave an encouraging speech during the dinner, and explained why she chose to be an ally. Upon graduating from the Circles of Hope program, circle leaders have the option of becoming an ally for another person.

“A life without direction is a life without passion,” Winkler began. “My hope is that Circles of Hope allies and leaders can make a difference in Haywood County. Circle leaders, I hope you reach for the stars. God is on your side, and one day you will be up here sharing your ally speech.”

The circle leaders will officially complete the program on Dec.11, Hershenson said. Until then, circle leaders will meet every Thursday night to learn life skills and work with their allies to reach their goals.

While the first circle leader class includes only 11 people, the waiting list has grown and Circles of Hope will have a class of about 20 this fall — which means the program is seeking many volunteer allies.

“We plan on recruiting new allies immediately, and we will begin working with the leaders in early fall,” Hershenson said.

Anyone interested in becoming an ally should call Hershenson at 828 452-1447 ext. 134 or email mhershenson@mountainprojects.org

Comments (1)
Posted by: Scott Lilly | Feb 10, 2014 09:17

"Career Connections offers free services to help job seekers secure employment including skills assessments, career counseling, resume and cover letter writing, and assistance with applications." -- I have seen this place in action across from the Walmart in Hazelwood.  There are at least 10 computers there and someone to help with resumes and other job-finding things.  Sadly, on the day I was there (for several hours) only one person dropped by.  If anyone is unemployed and not taking advantage of this place, I would say that's a shame.


There are lots of jobs posted online.  Or if you have a skill or talent (like chopping wood or painting saw blades) posting a craigslist ad might get you work.  I'll bet those at Career Connections can help someone DO something rather than WAIT for something.


I still maintain that out of any charity program I've heard of, this Circles of Hope program is the most interesting.  It's a hand-up rather than the traditional hand-out.  Kudos!


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