Circles of the Heartland

Rodney Denholm is a certified counselor for Consumer Credit Counseling Services. Shelly Martin is a registered nurse of 25 years. They share a love of helping others, extremely positive outlooks, and the knowledge that Salina has a problem with poverty. Those are just a few reasons why in February of 2012 they teamed up to become the coordinators of a brand new program to the Salina area called “Circles of the Heartland”.

“Circles” works to end poverty through what Martin refers to as the three R’s: Resources, Relationships, and Reason. The program works to help a family in poverty build all three of these. They look at low-income and poverty level families who have a home but are struggling financially at or below poverty level. Martin says they have been working off of referrals from agencies in town such as the Salina Housing Authority and the Department for Children and Families. So far they have received 10 applications for the 12 spots available in the first session of the program. Each family has to commit to attending class for 12-15 weeks. In class families follow a specialized curriculum that builds the three R’s. Once they complete the class they begin “Circles”, which pairs them with Allies from the community. “The program helps families understand the tools they need to help them make a transformation from what we call ‘survival mode’, which is living in low-income, to becoming financially stable” Martin says. “They learn to build assets, manage cash flow, and they begin to network and build their self-esteem”. The program comes equipped with textbook, community resources, and most importantly “Allies”. Denholm says ideally each family would have 2-3 Allies to journey with them. “Anyone can volunteer to be an Ally. Our Allies go through training and support and encourage the family in poverty, so they have someone to understand them, to help them reach their goals, to broaden their perspective”. Simply put, “Circles”, is the community and Allies circling around the family in poverty, guiding and helping, but not doing for them the necessary steps it takes to end poverty for that family.

Circles began in 2007 in Ohio. From there it has grown to communities nationwide, and Salina was one of three Kansas cities to become official members of the Circles National Campaign in early 2013. Consumer Credit Counseling Services is a natural fit for Circles. CCCS is a fiscal agent and the lead agency for Circles until it is able to achieve non-profit status of its own. Together, Martin and Denholm have been working tirelessly during this past year to get Circles off and running in Salina. As awareness of the program has increased, so has community involvement. Denholm says support in town is key. More agencies mean more stability for families in the program. Martin says that each week a family attends, a meal is donated and free child care is provided. “No one can give too little.”

By 2014-2015, Martin says the goal is to have 2 sessions of classes a year- essentially helping 24 families. She also has goals for individuals; saying she wants to, “See things happen in the community. To see barriers broken. To see people not need assistance, to see a person who thought they couldn’t go back to school do just that, and then see their own goals met.” The nurse in Martin shines through as she refers to what she has dubbed the “Band-Aid effect”, saying that everyone needs their “Band-Aid people”, whether that be a service or a friend who will help out in a pinch. But, Martin says, that can be the problem. “If we constantly put Band-Aids on, we don’t give ourselves a chance to actually heal. Band-Aids are short term, where the effects of the Circles program can last a lifetime.”

Poverty in Salina, KS is an issue many citizens may not be aware of. Denholm says, “We drive by poverty every day, but we don’t recognize it for what it is. It is not an immediate problem for us, so we don’t see it.” Martin says many people in Salina don’t think we have a problem. “Poverty is such an easy thing for middle to upper class people to disconnect from. Those in poverty live on the ‘other side of the tracks’ and we don’t see it that often. Businesses, attractions, and work places are built in a certain area of town where we live. And when we have to venture to the areas where it is more likely we will see poverty, we just turn a blind eye.” She also says people in poverty feel like they can’t dream. “They have no childcare, no family or financial support, they have more than one job, they maybe didn’t finish school, and they live paycheck-to-paycheck.” Circles intends to reverse all of that.

The national goal of the Circles program is to eradicate poverty. “People in poverty aren’t sick, but poverty is a disease a community has,” says Martin, “I compare poverty to cancer. We don’t feel cancer is an end anymore because we have doctors and scientists working towards a cure every day. Poverty doesn’t have to be an end either. If we research and work hard, someday in the future we can cure poverty.”