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Circles Builds Networks, Helps Kansas Families Out of Poverty
Kansas Ag Connection - 07/17/2014

Kimberly Trigg, a single mother of three boys living in Salina, moved from where she grew up in southern California several years ago to change her life, be a better mother and be a better individual.

Completing her bachelor's degree in family studies this year at Kansas State University Salina was a large accomplishment that took achieving several small goals along the way, and Trigg attributes the support of friends she's made through the Circles program as one of the many reasons for her success.

"I enjoy meeting new people who are genuine, who want to help and figure out what we can do to make the community better, especially when it is about poverty, and speaking to people who I never would have had the opportunity to meet, to share ideas and to build camaraderie," Trigg said.

Circles of the Heartland of Saline County is one of the newest Circles programs in Kansas and is one of eight total Circles community programs in the state (http://www.circlesusa.org/index.php?page=location#kansas). Circles of the Heartland is part of Circles USA, a national initiative that focuses on three main areas to help families out of poverty: crisis management and stabilization, education and job placement, and advancement and economic stability.

Families such as Trigg's apply to take part in Circles, which starts with about a 12-week "getting ahead" period, followed by 18 months of weekly meetings to network, train and learn. Part of the learning includes getting families' hands on research-based information provided by K-State Research and Extension.

"I found value as an extension agent to be part of the (Circles) program because of all the resources I have available to me," said Lisa Newman, family and child development agent for K-State Research and Extension's Central Kansas District. "If I'm offering a program, I know the information being presented is research-based, reliable, good information."

Trigg said the information provided by K-State Research and Extension doesn't stay within the walls of the Circles meeting.

"We go out and tell people what we've learned," Trigg said. "I've talked to other participants in my Circles group, and we've shared whatever we have learned with other people."

Some examples of educational programs provided at Circles meetings include how to set a budget, get involved in local community groups, read with children and grow a garden.

Newman said 12 families, called "Circle leaders," are selected for each rotation for Circles of the Heartland. A meal and childcare are provided at each of the weekly meetings during the 18-month program, which allow families to relax and talk about barriers within their communities, listen to educational sessions that include but are not limited to those led by extension professionals, and work with community leaders, known as "allies," for encouragement and to build a network of people.

"Already in Saline County, one of the significant things we are finding is that the families in the program are doubling or tripling the number of people in their lives," Newman said. "That social capital piece is missing in a lot of other programs that work well but often times are not near as long (as Circles)."

Deb Marseline of Salina volunteers as an ally for Circles of the Heartland and serves as one of Trigg's allies. She said many of the programs and services available to assist families in need provide only short-term solutions for tangible items--food and money to pay rent, as examples. Circles, on the other hand, provides a chance for families to set goals, make a plan for economic stability and become engaged within the community.

"I think that too often these families are left out of being at the table with us," Marseline said. "But together, we can solve community problems and make the whole community stronger."

Marseline, who has a background in social work, said she heard about becoming a Circles ally through her church, but she didn't expect to be matched with someone from her past. Marseline had Trigg as a student long ago when she was an instructor at K-State Salina.

"If you'd have told me Kim and I were going to be matched back then, I probably wouldn't have believed you," Marseline said. "I had known Kim from that class, and she could be abrasive and hard to get close to, not the happy social person you see now. The growth this woman has made over the years, just her enthusiasm about learning and how she can constantly improve herself, I don't know if it was before Circles or part of Circles that she has softened a lot and let more people in."

Trigg said Circles has helped her to be more open with other Circle leaders and allies. Breaking down barriers she's kept for a long time has allowed her to enhance her network and get to know more people in the community.

"I'm very fortunate to have Deb," Trigg said. "She gets me into more community involvement, because she's so well-connected. I feel like because I have Deb, I have someone who will get me into the door places I want to be and talk to people I want to talk to."

As an ally, Marseline said she has learned just as much from her relationship with Trigg and the other Circle leaders. She wants the community to see the gifts and talents that the Circle leaders have.

"For the allies, at first you might think you're open, because you choose to do this," Marseline said. "But, you realize that you pass judgments, too. You've had stereotypes or prejudices, too. Then you get to know real people and real stories. That makes it hard to ever look away again, because you start to understand that you're more alike than you are different."

Building relationships is key to the success of Circles, said Wanda Pumphrey of Newton, Kansas, who is the coach for Circles of Hope of Harvey County and the Circles USA regional coach for Kansas. During the "getting ahead" period and 18 months of weekly meetings, the hope is for two big ideas to occur: move families out of poverty to self-sufficiency and change the community mindset about poverty.

Although the Circles program is a time commitment, the outcomes have shown that the program does work in putting people on the path to self-sufficiency. The national 2012 Circles Impact Report (http://www.circlesusa.org/index.php?page=news) shows that active participants who have gone through the Circles program in 18 months have, on average, an 88 percent increase in assets, 27 percent increase in income and 27 percent decrease in the need for public benefits.

When the families, allies and others from the community gather at a weekly Circles meeting, sit across from one another, have a meal together and visit, everyone tends to have a greater understanding of what it is specifically in the community that keeps people in poverty or makes it difficult for them to get out of poverty, Pumphrey said. That understanding spurs change.

She said those who are involved in Circles tend to get excited about all the good things that are happening and share this with people in other communities. Spreading the word has led to the growth of Circles in Kansas.

"Newton (Circles of Hope) was the first to bring Circles into Kansas," Pumphrey said. "McPherson was second. Hutchinson has a Circles community, as does Garden City, Salina, Marion/Hillsboro, Iola and Wichita. There are some other communities that are exploring having a Circles community. It's a grassroots thing that kind of takes off because people care."

To start a Circles community, she said a community champion--someone who cares about what's happening in the community related to poverty and wants to make a difference--must be willing to step up and gather more resources.

"That community champion needs to gather people around him or her so that there is a core leadership group that wants to tackle poverty in a different way, not simply handing out things to people who need it, but who wants to do something that will transform a community," Pumphrey said.

In addition to the organizers, Circle leaders and allies, it also takes a dedicated community to make Circles work. Churches and other community groups sign up to prepare and serve the meals at the meetings. Volunteers from extension, colleges and other organizations within the community serve on the guiding coalition board.

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