Guest column on Circles of Hope
Circles of Hope in Haywood County
By Charles (Chuck) W. Wilson II
On Tuesday, February 4, I wish you could have been sitting where I was sitting. I watched 11 men and women graduate from a community program called Circles of Hope in Haywood County. I think this work gives us the best hope I’ve observed for eradicating situational and generational poverty in our region.
Circles of Hope is powerfully touching the lives of persons in poverty in our community. Since early September, every Wednesday night 11 Circle Leaders (A Circle Leader is a person in poverty who wants to get out of poverty) have gathered for training and support. These persons are being empowered to permanently transition out of poverty and into economic self-sufficiency. A part of the strength of Circles of Hope is the surrounding of each Circle Leader with trained, supportive team of people (called Allies).
When I was a kid I fell quite easily into the bias that poverty was somehow a choice you made. I’m not sure how it happened, but somehow I came to the understanding that if you were poor, you probably deserved it. What I didn’t understand was that the opportunities I had made it possible for me to overcome just about any obstacle that came my way. I attended good schools. I had all my vaccinations against those crazy childhood diseases. I was living in a country that for the most part embraced basic freedoms and protected individual rights. I didn’t suffer from hunger, impure water, or a lack of basic health care. I had hundreds of colleges and universities from which to choose with scholarships and loans available. I then entered the everyday work world with opportunities for me to put my education and abilities to work productively. Best of all, I found that my efforts and hard work were almost always rewarded.
But the advantages I just mentioned that contributed to my own story were not and are not available to all Americans. When I grew up in the 1950s and 60s, Black children were often segregated into different and inferior schools, and sometimes prevented from going on to higher education. They found that even in America they suffered from severe limitations on their choices.
The neighborhood I grew up in was a nice middle class neighborhood with good schools and low crime rates. But then and now, the children of the poor in America live in communities (Yes, even in Haywood County) that often expose them to very destructive forces like crime, violence, corruption, rape, drugs, racism, domestic abuse, economic deprivation, and prostitution, just to name a few. A child living in Haywood County poverty, who has never met his father and whose mother is a meth addict, does not start with the same choices I had. And while poverty in Haywood County is not usually characterized by bad water, or famine, or epidemics, it replaces those destructive elements with a whole new list of things that are equally powerful: discrimination, intimidation, alienation, and exploitation.
The result is … hopelessness. Poverty in Haywood County where we have 9000 persons struggling with poverty issues is real … just as real as poverty in Africa, and it is just as damaging to the human spirit. At its root it has the same causes: the lack of real choices.
What I have discovered is that almost all poverty is fundamentally the result of a lack of options. The poor are not lazier, less intelligent, or unwilling to make efforts to change their condition. Rather, they are trapped by circumstances beyond their power to change.
The result is the devastation of the human spirit and that, my friends, is a trap like no other. They have lost the one thing that every person needs to thrive … hope … hope that they can somehow overcome their circumstances, that tomorrow can be better than today, and that their children might someday have a better life than the one they’ve known. Such people discover that they are in an economic and social prison from which there is no escape … unless something happens to change their circumstances and to restore the link between effort and reward.
If you could have sat where I sat on Tuesday evening, February 4 you would have seen that Circles of Hope in Haywood County is precisely that link.
If you’d like more information please contact Millie Hershenson at firstname.lastname@example.org or call at 828-452-1447, Ext. 134.