The Ypsilanti-based local chapter of the national Circles financial stability program, which matches low-income "leaders" with higher-income "allies," has graduated its second cohort.
Circles Washtenaw County, which is run by Ypsi nonprofit Friends in Deed, started in July 2017 and matched its first cohort of 15 "leaders" with "allies" in autumn 2017. The second cohort of 12 leaders entered the program this summer. The Washtenaw program is funded in part through a grant from United Way Washtenaw.
Each leader must go through a training program that lasts 12-13 weeks before being matched with two to three allies. Leaders stay in the program for about 18 months total, according to Laurie Sternberg, Friends in Deed's director of communications and development.
"We look at it as a two-way relationship," Sternberg says. "It's helpful to expand somebody's network and help lift them up and out of poverty, but it's also good for volunteers living in a bubble to get out of that bubble and understand the needs and challenges for people who live in other situations in our county."
After leaders and allies are matched, they meet weekly for dinner and programming at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, 4205 Washtenaw Ave. in Pittsfield Township. Participants share what's "new and good" during dinner and share appreciation at the end of the night. On some nights special speakers present on topics ranging from resume building to budgeting. On other nights small circles of leaders and allies meet to work on each leader's issue.
Sternberg notes that the program provides childcare, food, homework help, and tutoring to participants' children as well.
Allies are there to provide accountability and cheerleading, Sternberg says. For instance, a leader may have determined that he or she needs a new copy of his or her GED in order to get into higher education or a vocational training program.
"Maybe they have it all plotted out, but they are having trouble doing that," Sternberg says. "The allies then did the research on how to get the GED."
It's too early to measure the success of the local program, but statistics from the national group show that Circles participants earned 37 percent more income after 6 months and 62 percent more in 18 months.
Sternberg says leaders in the program come from "all walks of life" and span a variety of age ranges.
"We had someone who was very successful but when her husband was taken seriously ill, her world fell apart. She's trying to get back on track," Sternberg says. "Then we have somebody else who is a senior who is trying to get out of the cycle of temp jobs she's been in and get into a more permanent situation with a living wage."
She says many of the allies in the first cohort were already involved with Friends in Deed as board members or volunteers, but Friends in Deed hopes to change that in the second round.
"With our next set of allies, we'll be reaching out further into the community, doing talks with Rotary Clubs and chambers of commerce, getting the word out," Sternberg says.
Those interested in serving as allies in the program can learn more at https://www.friendsindeedmi.org/circles or by calling (734) 340-9042.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the interim project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She has served as innovation and jobs/development news writer for Concentrate since early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to Driven. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos courtesy of Friends in Deed.