Ypsilanti-based Circles program adds services to help boost families out of poverty during pandemic

Circles has offered free laptops for participants, savings accounts for participants' children, and a reimbursement fund for participants who want to pursue continuing education.

Ypsilanti-based nonprofit Friends In Deed (FID) has had great success with its Circles program, an initiative that pairs low-income "leaders" with higher-income "allies" to help the leaders lift themselves out of poverty. But when the COVID-19 pandemic came to Michigan, FID staff worried that they might not be able to maintain the program's momentum.


"Circles is such a relationship-based program that we were concerned whether we could replicate it virtually," says Suzanne Van Dam, Circles program coordinator. "We're still soldiering on, and our leaders are making amazing progress, even through the pandemic."

Circles coordinator Suzanne Van Dam.

Large group dinners that brought Circles participants together every week didn't survive the change, but participants still meet weekly via Zoom. During those 90-minute meetings, participants continue to share what's new and good in their life at the beginning of each session, followed by programming in a variety of subjects like budgeting or career exploration.


To respond to the new needs the pandemic has created, Circles launched a Laptops for Leaders program to help participants connect virtually, and added two programs: a savings account for leaders' children and a reimbursement fund for participants who want to pursue continuing education.


Adapting Circles to the new reality


FID 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 help line that provides financial assistance to help prevent utility shut-offs and a fund that helps people pay for car repairs.


In 2016, when staff found out about the Circles national program, they immediately knew the program was aligned with FID's mission of building community and lifting families out of 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 started 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, and the program provides child care, food, homework help, and tutoring to participants' children.


Laurie Sternberg, director of communications and development for FID, says that before pivoting to virtual programming, staff members gathered a lot of information and sent surveys not only to clients but to donors and volunteers.


"We wanted to see how everybody was doing and keep that connection open," Sternberg says. "From one of our surveys, we learned how important the technology piece was."

Friends in Deed's director of communications and development, Laurie Sternberg.

Several Circles leaders tried to join Zoom meetings by their phones, but that experience is "limited," Sternberg says, as opposed to joining via laptop or even a larger tablet.


An Over the Edge fundraiser on Labor Day weekend offered donors the opportunity to rappel down The Graduate, a 14-story hotel in downtown Ann Arbor. The money raised through that event seeded the Laptops for Leaders program.


Andrew Green, an Americorps VISTA volunteer interning with FID, helped staff figure out the best technology to spend those funds on. He helped choose laptops, loaded them with useful software, and bought a wi-fi hot spot for one of the Circles leaders.


Van Dam says that simply not falling behind is a mark of success during the pandemic, when many people have been laid off. But beyond avoiding falling behind, Circles participants are continuing to make gains. Van Dam says it helped that the third cohort was able to start the program in person and then switch to virtual programming.


"Our leaders have done really well. They've gotten jobs or kept jobs while juggling lack of child care and working from home, and have made some really good progress," Van Dam says.


One leader was working in housekeeping in a hospital. But with encouragement from Circles, she took advantage of the hospital's tuition reimbursement program and began taking courses toward a medical certification. She's now working in a patient care role making $4 an hour more than when she began the Circles program a year ago, Van Dam says.


Adding programs to empower leaders and their children


FID also added two new programs to help Circles leaders and their children since the pandemic hit. One leader, a single mother of three kids who works and is going back to school to finish a degree, is the first to take advantage of the program's new FLOWER fund.


"We realized several employers in the area offer a great perk that they will reimburse tuition for courses related to the workplace," Van Dam says. "But for low-income people, they may already be maxed out on financial aid, and they can't front that money or borrow it, even though they'll be reimbursed 100%."


An FID volunteer did some crowdfunding and seeded an account that gives leaders the tuition money. Once they've been reimbursed by their employer, they pay FID back.


Circles has always provided financial literacy programming for leaders' children, but during the pandemic, FID also added a child savings account as an element of the Circles program. Children have a savings account started for them, and can receive matching funds from FID for completing certain incentives.


Sternberg says the amount of funding available for those savings accounts will depend on how much is raised for each cohort, but the Kiwanis Club of Ann Arbor Foundation provided $4,400 as seed money for the project.


Any money a child deposits into their account is matched by FID up to $150. Children can earn more in $10 increments by participating in themed monthly incentives, like getting a library card, participating in a virtual event sponsored by a local library, or participating in a children's financial literacy program. Sternberg says future incentives may be related to homework or increasing grades.


FID holds onto the funds during the time the leader is going through the program. At the end of the 18-month Circles program, the parent can have the money rolled over into an account of the parent's choice. Circles allies can help the parents and child make decisions about which banking institute to patronize, creating "another learning moment," Sternberg says.


A fourth cohort started the Circles program this week, and Van Dam says the program is seeking five or six new higher-income allies for the new cohort.


"We've got some really wonderful people lined up, but we need more people who want to make a difference right here in our community," Van Dam says. "We're ideally looking for people who are curious and interested in learning more about the struggles of people living paycheck to paycheck. We're looking for people who are willing to give of their time and draw on some of their own knowledge and skills to help someone access wider networks."


She says allies typically help with problem-solving and provide help and encouragement.


"Living in poverty can be very overwhelming," Van Dam says. "The main job of an ally is to break a big overwhelming problem into small manageable goals, and help the allies tackle them one at a time."

For more Concentrate coverage of our community's response to the COVID-19 crisis, click here.


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.