Don't be a stranger to those in need

By Shelby Harrell | Mar 27, 2014

Watching people struggle in this economy is not a rewarding thing, but seeing them overcome obstacles and achieve self sufficiency is very rewarding — especially if they learn to feel proud of themselves in the process.

I began to realize this last July when I began to learn about poverty firsthand. While reporting on a new program in Haywood County over the past eight months, I was introduced to several people who completely changed my views about those living in poverty.

The new program, "Circles of Hope," helps families get completely out of poverty and helps them achieve economic stability. The participants go through six weeks of training and learn how to become self sufficient, and then they graduate and begin making changes in their lives. I remember thinking that this Circles program sounded really great — but after actually being around to see the people change, I have to admit, it's quite remarkable.

Going into my first interview with a Circles of Hope leader (participant), I didn't know what to expect. My first interview was with David, a man who had been homeless after his wife left him with their 5-year-old son, and he was able to get back on his feet with help from local agencies like Mountain Projects. My nerves had set in, but by the end of our interview, I realized that not only did David have quite a compelling story to tell, but he also wasn't that different from me.

A couple weeks later, I met another Circle Leader named George at a local food pantry. He seemed a little shy as he packed his backpack full of donated food while I took his picture, but he was willing to talk about his experience of being homeless in Haywood County for two years. Alcoholism and a knee injury from serving in the U.S. Navy were contributing factors to his misfortune, he told me. George eventually was able to move into an apartment through a Veteran's Affairs program, and later decided to join Circles of Hope because he wanted to surround himself with the right kind of people.

But today, George is not that same shy same person I interviewed last July. While attending the Circles of Hope graduation last month, I noticed that this quiet, former homeless man was now glowing and happy — shaking hands and hugging everyone who passed by — including me. His beaming smile wasn't just because he graduated from the Circles of Hope training or because all his bills were finally paid; he was beaming because he felt like he had gained a family of support.

I saw that same smile on the face of Tonya Cagle that night. Tonya, who is a mother of a 3-year-old and an infant, had just managed to complete her GED with help from Circles of Hope and felt proud of herself for the first time in her life. For her, the Circles of Hope graduation was a reason for  her to put on a nice dress and celebrate her accomplishment —  that she had finally completed something all the way through.

And then there was Ricky — the talkative, friendly guy who's getting married to another Circle Leader named Cathy this weekend. Ricky also has adopted Cathy's 11-year-old, Makayla, as his own stepdaughter. Even though he is currently weaning his family off of food stamps, Ricky has never given up on his faith during his challenging life — even when downsizing his finances meant that he would have to go hungry Makayla can have seconds at dinner.

During the Circles of Hope graduation, Ricky came up to me and bragged with the biggest smile about his brand new 2014 Chevrolet Spark hatchback that he had just leased. For Ricky, the new car was a symbol all how far he had come financially, and how much he really was capable of.

For most of us, the idea of having a support group, a GED or a new hatchback doesn't seem that exciting — but for these local residents, it's a reason to strive for a better life. Circle leaders are literally pulling themselves out of poverty with a little help, and it's changing the way they look at life. They suddenly can see potential in themselves, their self worth and they're no longer afraid to reach for more. All three of the Circle leaders I mentioned above will be enrolled in community college in the fall, and they probably wouldn't have had the motivation or the guts to do so if it weren't for this program.

But Circles of Hope is only as strong as its volunteers, and right now, the program needs more of them. Every Circle leader that participates in the program is assigned three mentors or "allies" to help them achieve self sufficiency. An ally is a volunteer who has received training to help families get out of poverty. Millie Hershenson, the Circles of Hope coordinator, said that 20 local residents have already signed up for next year's program, which means she needs to recruit 60 volunteers to be allies as soon as possible.

If you want to truly help someone get their life on track, and be there for them when they enjoy a type of success they've never felt before, then become an ally. I've only been an observing newspaper reporter through this whole experience, and I'm already so touched by the program that I've volunteered to be on one of the committees. This program really does change lives, and it changed mine just by showing me how much I take for granted and how rewarding it is to reach out to others.

I'm sure I will meet many more participants through the Circles of Hope program, but I will always remember Tonya, Ricky, George and David — the people who showed me the meaning of real determination, and shattered my preconceived notion that people living in poverty are unmotivated. The truth is they are strong, willing people who need a hand up and not a hand out.

So if you want to see — and help — people change their lives, become an ally and learn what it truly means to deliver hope. To volunteer, call Hershenson at 828-452-1447 ext. 134.

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