Answers were nearly impossible to come by, even in the facing of losing a home.
Nancy Phelps didn’t know how she was going to keep her apartment. The Franklin resident relies on Social Security to survive, and after her apartment complex announced it was leaving the Section 42 affordable rental housing program, she wondered where she would go. The future rent would take up nearly all of her monthly income.
“I got to the point where, I was living, and they were going to increase the rent. What was I going to go?” she said. “I was in crisis.”
Phelps was able to find answers and a pathway to escape her struggles through Circles Johnson County, a program sponsored by the Bridges Alliance of Johnson County anti-poverty organization. She has graduated from an introductory 12-week workshop, and is now a Circle Leaders, using her own perspective and experience lift others up.
Now in its fifth year, the Circles program and Bridges Alliance has helped local residents escape poverty. At the same time, it provides a foundation of support to ensure that they break the cycles that have held them back in the past.
“The goal is financial independence and financial stability with healthy community interdependence,” said Jill Pierce, coach of the Circles program. “None of us do this on our own; even the most successful of us are dependent on our community, our family, our friends. For the participants in this program, we’re trying to create that network that will allow them to have that healthy interdependence to be financially stable.”
Bridges Alliance of Johnson County is a collaboration between businesses, social service agencies, churches and individuals working together to end poverty in the community. The program provides the tools, resources, support and relationships necessary to be successful, helping people establish independence and stability in their lives.
The organization uses parts of two different nationally recognized anti-poverty programs. Bridges Out of Poverty focuses on understanding the hidden rules of society that can keep people from succeeding. At the same time, Bridges Alliance has also worked with a group called Circles USA.
The introductory portion of the Circles program is a course called Surviving to Thriving.
“It’s a chance for participants to explore their own history, what got them to the point they’re at right now. They think about what their strengths are, what their challenges are, and really take stock of where they are and where they’re going,” Pierce said. “They also learn about different structures in our society that might have led to the challenges they’re facing.”
Phelps learned about Bridges Alliance of Johnson County and its Circles program while navigating a family crisis. She was attending a System of Care program for families struggling with mental health issues. Other agencies were taking part to provide resources to participants; one of those was Bridges Alliance.
Speaking with Leslie Daugherty, Circles coordinator for the organization, Phelps was drawn to the message.
“She was talking about intentional relationship building around people who were not doing OK with financials, who were struggling paycheck to paycheck and were not able to get ahead,” she said. “That was what my situation was.”
Phelps enrolled in Surviving to Thriving in June 2021. Over the course of 12 weeks, participants meet each week to learn about how to budget, apply and interview for a job, and set goals. They also forge connections among each other and other agencies in the community.
“You start connecting right in your community,” Phelps said. “The Circles community connects and develops those resources to help people.”
Laura Segundo also was drawn to the organization’s connectedness. She and her daughter had been isolated by the COVID-19 pandemic; she was working from home, and her daughter was attending school online.
In May 2021, she saw a flyer about Bridges Alliance and the Circles program.
“For me, what really stood out was the intentional friendship part. Not so much the budgeting and things — don’t get me wrong, that’s helped — but the friendships, for me, was really like a support group,” she said.
Learning more about pinpointed goals, while interacting with a diverse group of people that was supportive and encouraging, proved to be beneficial.
“It’s a very positive environment. You go every week, and it’s such an uplifting experience,” she said. “There’s that overwhelming support that you might not get in your regular life.”
Once participants graduate from the Surviving to Thriving workshop, they’re matched with a community volunteer known as an Ally. Allies help support Circle Leaders as they work to achieve those goals — for example, giving advice on résumés and job interviews, getting assistance finding job training or locating affordable housing.
Sam Rhodes signed up to be an Ally after his wife had volunteered to be one several years before. Hearing her experience intrigued him.
“I guess I wanted to get to know my community a little better. It sounded like a great way to make new friends and possibly by a resource to the community,” he said.
He was matched with another Circle Leader, and most recently was paired with Segundo.
“It has been a chance to meet people I wouldn’t necessarily have met otherwise, and work with a group of other individuals’ problems and with your Circle Leader in particular to help solve problems for them,” Rhodes said.
His guidance, among others in the group, has been invaluable, Segundo said.
“It’s a built-in network of people that a lot of people in my position don’t necessarily have,” she said. “Knowing I have people I can call, even if they can’t physically do something for you, at least they’re there.”
Tammie Robinson had been reaching out to different organizations, looking for volunteer opportunities, when she encountered Bridges Alliance. Being an Ally appealed to her — she had experienced the struggles that many Circle Leaders face in the past, and felt she could provide valuable insight.
“It sounded interesting. I’ve been close to where the Leaders have been in my living situation, and I’ve changed my life. So I know their mindset, how it helps having someone believe in them and the difference it can make,” she said.
After undergoing training, both in-person and online, Robinson was assigned her first Circle Leader: Phelps. The two have set aside regular times to meet and talk, and Robinson also is available in emergency situations that Phelps might face.
“I listen to a lot of things. I get her to think about things from a little different perspective,” Robinson said. “When you’re in the surviving mentality, you don’t always get to look at the big picture, you’re just looking at how it affects you that day. So when you’re out of that, you can think about how things will affect you in the long run if you can just get through this day.”
For Phelps, the experience in the Circles program has been transformational. She has maintained her commitment to the group, attending weekly meetings and continuing those connections that have been built over the past year.
Through the program, she was connected to AmeriCorp, an agency focused on service initiatives. She worked a position during the summer, helping young people with financial literacy and assisting develop a permanent program. In addition, she was able to take additional education to help her find employment opportunities.
“Circles, I could say, saved my life,” she said.
Those opportunities were made possible through the path Circles laid out.
“It’s not a handout — they’re going to do this or pay this for you. It helps you build not only intentional trust relationships, but you start understanding your community. Now you have a voice in the community,” Phelps said.
Bridges Alliance organizers are searching for potential Circle Leaders to go through the Surviving to Thriving program.
Participants must complete an application, meet with a coordinator and have secure housing. They are expected to attend every weekly class, be on time, complete homework assignments, follow all the rules the group agrees on, and respect participants and volunteers.
Organizers are also looking for volunteer Allies to pair with them once they graduate.
“Participants who are paired with an Ally or two then have already, just by the nature of going through the matching process, increased the number of people they can call on for support when they have challenges and celebrate when they have victories,” Pierce said.
AT A GLANCE
Surviving to Thriving
The next session of the Surviving to Thriving class is now accepting applicants. Here’s what you need to know:
- What is it? Surviving to Thriving is a 12-week program designed for people and families struggling with poverty who want to change their lives.
- Who organizes it? The class is put on by Bridges Alliance of Johnson County, a comprehensive approach to ending the cycle of poverty in the community.
- What does it include? Surviving to Thriving provides you with education, resources, plans, and support as you navigate financial instability. This class encourages stabilization and community transformation. Together with allies, you will develop goals, learn from each other, build a friendship, and collect resources to stabilize you and your family
- How to apply or for more information: People who want more info can visit bridgesalliancejc.org. They can also email Jillian Pierce at [email protected] or call for more information on the program or how to apply at 317-459-3745.
- How to be an Ally: Allies are paired with an individual working to break the cycle of poverty, to provide support and guidance as they work to meet the financial, employment, education and other goals that they’ve set. Go to bridgesalliancejc.org, where applications can be found.