Ally support can empower those in need

By Shelby Harrell | Aug 01, 2013
Photo by: Shelby Harrell Circles of Hope coordinator Millie Hershenson, left, shows Ann Melton some poverty details in a book.  Melton will be learning more about poverty when she undergoes an Aug. 10 ally training with the Circles of Hope program.

Ann Melton is eager to be trained as a Circles of Hope ally.

Sitting at a table, she looks over a book called “The Framework for Understanding Poverty” with a thoughtful look on her face.

"Interesting," she says after reading some facts about people living in poverty.

Melton is preparing for the Circles of Hope ally training that is scheduled for Aug. 10. The training will be based on the principles outlined in "The Framework for Understanding Poverty."

Melton is just one of 15 local residents who have already signed up for the training, which will show the allies-in-training how to help families get completely out of poverty and achieve economic stability.

For the first time, ally training is being offered in Haywood County. Through the program, individuals and families living in poverty become “Circle leaders" who will depend on their allies for encouragement and inspiration.

In September, Circle leaders will go through a 13-week training program that will teach them how to sustain a middle class lifestyle. After the training, allies become a type of mentor who recognizes the difficulties of finding a way out of poverty, and helps alleviate some of the barriers obstructing their path.

Millie Hershenson, coordinator of Circles of Hope, said she was hoping to recruit at least five more allies before the training.

“We need at least five more so each circle leader will have two allies,” Hershenson said, adding that there currently were 10 circle leaders in the program. “I would love to have 15 more so each leader could have three. We’ve got to make sure we have enough people to become allies. The leaders would get very disappointed if they go through the training and there's no ally to give them.”

A passion for giving back

Melton, of Waynesville, said Circles of Hope was a way to help individuals in more meaningful way. She referened the proverb, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."

"This is the ‘teach them to fish’ program," Melton said. "We have a moral obligation to do this. I was taught that to whom much is given much is expected. I've been very blessed in my life."

Laura Palmer of Waynesville is also looking forward to becoming an ally.

"We all need each other," she said. "I've been a social worker most of my working career, and I want to help any way I can with individuals who are willing to better themselves."

Palmer said she signed up for the training as a way to support people who want to help themselves

"I’m pretty much like any other person — I get excited when someone fulfills a dream that they have or challenges themselves to overcome their fears or adversities," she said.

Roy Gass of Waynesville also signed up for training because he saw a need for the program in the community.

"We have an obligation to help our fellow human beings," Gass said. "I just want to volunteer and try and help people succeed, whatever level that is, and share any skill sets I have that will help them."

Gass, who is the director of stores at the Nantahala Outdoors Center, said he could help the leaders become more professional.

"I do a lot of hiring and training and I know what takes to be in the workforce and what people are looking for," Gass said. "I think people out there have a lot of tragedies they have to recover from. It's more difficult to overcome these days, with financial setbacks."

Making a difference

Hershenson said different types of poverty-stricken families had joined the program, including those facing situational poverty and those struggling with generational poverty.

"There's some now who deal with situational poverty, where they've been laid off or had their salaries cut because of the economy," Hershenson said. "And then there's those types of people who are in generational poverty, who have lived in poverty for two generations or more."

Hershenson said the training would teach the allies the rules of living in poverty, the middle class and being wealthy. She said allies would study different language styles and the different phases they will experience with their Circle leaders. In addition, allies will learn what it's like for someone living in poverty.

"The allies role-play like they're someone in poverty, and they wait in the long lines," Hershenson said. "They get to see how many minutes in a day these people are waiting to be helped and how frustrating it is."

Hershenson said the Circle leaders eventually would have the opportunity to become an ally to help others.

"Once a person gets out of program, we encourage reciprocity," Hershenson said. "Whether it's volunteering, picking people up, cleaning — they're not just receiving help, they're giving back. After that, they are eligible to become an ally and that way they can personally share the experience."

Hershenson said Circles of Hope programs had been successful in other counties as well. She said she had heard testimonies from other people who became more aware of poverty and less judgmental during the program.

"There are so many assumptions people think about those living in poverty," Hershenson said. "It's not just about the money. It's more than that — it's taking those steps out of your comfort zone to be authentic and real with people who are in those situations."

Melton said she expected the ally training to change her mindset about poverty.

"I think every experience you have like that changes you for the better," Melton said. "To be more aware, and it opens your eyes to things you never thought about."

Melton, who worked with different school systems for most of her life, said it was going to be rewarding to work with adults for a change.

"In the programs I worked in, you're just helping one person in the family," she said, referring to programs that helped students. "Here, you’re getting down to the grass roots and the core part of it."

Melton said she was looking forward to helping a family break their poverty cycle.

"Most families who have been in poverty for generations and can't break that cycle," Melton said. "It would be so fantastic and rewarding and exciting to see someone break through this chain that has held them in place for so long."

Support needed

Hershenson said some organizations in the community were offering to help Circles of Hope be successful. She said Champion Credit Union had agreed to offer credit reports to the Circle leaders and will teach them how to remove bad credit, how to have a checking or savings account and to better understand value of money.

In addition, Hershenson said she was talking to some teachers at Haywood Community College about establishing an auto mechanic program where Circle leaders could take their cars to be fixed by students needing hands-on experience. The program is still in the works, however.

"Those are just examples of how the community is stepping it up," Hershenson said.

Hershenson encourages anyone with a willingness to help to become an ally. She said allies would be asked to donate between four and six hours of their time each month to their Circle leaders.

Hershenson said it wasn't too late for new allies to sigh up for the training, which will take place from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.  at Grace Church in the Mountains in Waynesville.

Anyone who wants to donate to the program can also sponsor a family and help pay for meals during the Circle leader training.

To enroll in the training or to become a sponsor, call Hershenson at 828-452-1447 ext. 134.