Ypsi program finds success pairing lower-income "leaders" with higher-income "allies"

Before Nikia Smith signed up for the Circles Washtenaw County program, she says she was "working minimal hours and living check to check."


But during her time in the Circles program, run by Ypsilanti nonprofit Friends in Deed, she learned how to create a budget and how to read and remove items from her credit report. She started paying off student loan debt, took classes to get certified as a nursing assistant, and got a raise of $4 an hour as well as more hours at work.


"Circles is the best thing I've done in a very long time," Smith says. "I'm excited and happy I made that choice. My life has changed drastically for the better."


Smith's success story is just one of many for Circles, which aims to help low-income "leaders" get out of poverty by building community and pairing them with middle- to upper-income "allies."


From short-term help to long-term solutions


Friends in Deed has been operating from its Ypsilanti headquarters for about 36 years as a secular nonprofit that grew out of programs offered by local churches to fill gaps that other social services programs weren't addressing. The nonprofit offers a variety of services, including a helpline that provides financial assistance to help prevent utility shut-offs and a fund that helps people pay for car repairs.


But several years ago, Friends in Deed executive director Sarah Thornburg and the nonprofit's caseworker at the time became frustrated that they couldn't do more than offer one-time help in emergencies.


When the staff found out about Circles' national program, they saw starting a local chapter as a chance to provide more long-term and intensive help. It also aligned with Friends in Deed's newly rewritten mission statement: Helping people in need and building community to end poverty.


The program matched its first cohort of 15 low-income "leaders" with higher-income "allies" in autumn 2017, and the second cohort of 12 leaders entered the program in summer 2018. A third cohort will start the program in autumn 2019.


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.


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. The first hour is dedicated to socializing and sharing what's going well. The second hour concentrates on formal programming. Speakers present on topics ranging from resume building to budgeting on some nights, and on other nights small circles of leaders and allies meet to work on each leader's goals and priorities.


The program provides childcare, food, homework help, and tutoring to participants' children as well. Smith says her 9-year-old daughter "has a wonderful time at the children's program" and looks forward to attending every Tuesday.


Circles coach Bonita Bingham says it's "not just babysitting."


"There is a curriculum, and children are exposed to experiences and topics like financial literacy and setting goals, how to study, and social-emotional learning like dealing with your feelings, fitness, and health," she says.


Circles coordinator Suzanne Van Dam says people aren't trapped in poverty due to lack of trying to better themselves.


"We discovered a lot of people we're helping were working really hard," she says. "It wasn't a work ethic issue or anything like that. Simply, the problem is lack of access to connections within the community, and a lack of access to role models and resources."


She notes that most social relationships "don't cross socioeconomic lines very easily," and without connections to those who are wealthier or middle-class, it's difficult to "move up economically."


Laurie Sternberg, Friends in Deed's director of communications and development, notes that Circles creates two-way relationships, and allies also benefit from the relationships built.


"Middle- to upper-income volunteers get a sense of the community beyond the bubbles they're stuck in," she says. "It helps you realize what you have in common with people (outside that bubble)."


Racking up successes


The program's most dramatic successes come when a leader does so well in the program that they come back as an ally. That was the case for Circles participant Bird Williams, who has lived in Ypsilanti since 2015.


Working temporary contract jobs from home allowed her to take care of an aging relative. But when Williams had to support a spouse and a child with chronic medical issues, it became important to find a permanent job with health care benefits. That was the goal she worked on as one of Circles' first leaders.


"My allies provided incredible encouragement and strategized with me," she says. "They sent me job leads when they saw them and did mock interviews. They were incredibly supportive friends as well as allies."


Williams has graduated from the program but remains involved, chairing Circles' "Big View" committee, which is dedicated to advocacy on issues such as housing affordability and predatory lending. In the fall, she'll return as an ally to the new cohort of leaders.


Bingham tells of a success story experienced by another leader, a naturalized U.S. citizen who immigrated from West Africa. She was struggling to find a good work situation and was being taken advantage of because she lacked a formal education and many skills needed to enter the workforce.


The Circles program connected her with two allies who stick up for her and helped her write and perfect a resume.


"Now she's working as a housekeeper for a local hospital system, full-time with benefits," Bingham says. The job is also much closer to home. "Before she was traveling an hour and a half each way on the bus, and now she gets on a bus and is at work in 15 minutes."


Another early Circles leader, Aleishia Burrell, came into the program with a strong wish to buy a home. After spending 18 months in the program, she recently bought and moved into her own home in Wayne.


She says she was so determined to buy a home, she probably would have done it even without Circles' help. But she appreciates the support she received so much that, although her 18 months are up, she still shows up on Tuesdays to socialize with other alumni of the program.


"My allies were a great support for me, being able to bounce ideas off them and have them look over my resume one more time and help me get that recommendation letter I needed," she says.


Smith and Burrell both recommend the Circles program to anyone who could benefit from it. Burrell suggests sitting in on a Tuesday night meal as an observer to see if the program might be of interest.


"(Circles) isn't something you have to do. Everybody here wants to be here, and I think that's what helps," Burrell says. "If you want to better yourself, Circles is the place to start."


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.


All photos by Doug Coombe.

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