Circles: Group Support for Low-Income Families


Just as “it takes a village to raise a child,” it takes a group to raise someone out of poverty. That seems to be the lesson of Circles, a program that moves beyond individual mentoring to surround the individual with encouragement. The Circles approach stresses education and training built on a platform of group support.

First United Methodist Church in McPherson, Kansas hosts a Circles chapter. Rebecca Lewis, the Circles Coach in McPherson, told me, “What you will see is that most families come in and they are just hopeless. They feel hopeless. They don’t think things are going to change. I see two types of families: people that are running as fast as they can and they are not getting anywhere and they are exhausted, or people that have just given up and sat down.”

Rebecca was a single mother from “generational poverty.” She was born to a single mother and raise three kids in poverty. “My experience of poverty, before bumping up against Circles, was that [I was ] in survival mode all my life, working hard and never getting anywhere.”

Education provides a foundation of the Circles method. Families living in poverty sign up with Circles by committing to a twelve-week class called “Getting Ahead.” In this course, a family leader learns about some of the causes of poverty. They learn that poverty is something that societies and communities need to take ownership of, that it’s not just an individual problem. “The biggest thing that happens for families,” Lewis says, “Is that right away they begin to experience hope.”

After a person graduates from the twelve-week course, they make a commitment, usually for eighteen months to five years, to get out of poverty permanently. They get there through a combination of personal goal setting and group support. Once they commit to the journey, they are called “Circle Leader,” which implies that they are personally responsible for getting there.

Next the person is matched with what are called “Allies.” “Allies are not mentors,” Lewis states. “They don’t tell families what to do. They are not responsible for families. They are just intentional friends.”

The complexity of the Circles approach—with its classes, Allies, and signed pledges of responsibility, may not appeal to everyone. Yet their strongly group-centered approach offers an important model for congregations that ask, “How can we help?”

Here’s the primary lesson from Circles: Everyone needs relationships, both intentional friends and support groups. That’s why the group approach to poverty works so well. People who struggle financially often experience hopelessness and isolation. Groups—call them circles of encouragement—takes the sting out of it.

Marlan Ratzlaff, a Circles Ally in McPherson, told me:

Our Circles Coach here, Rebecca Lewis, is something else. She was one of the early ones through the program, and she has helped so many. A lot of them say, ‘I would have quit, but Rebecca keeps getting us to come.’ And after the third or fourth meeting they see the light. Most of them say they see the relationship part, and hope. Those two words come out in all of them—relationships and hope—long before they get out of poverty.

Watch a video about the McPherson Circles program.

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