By Marylouise Sholly For The Lebanon Daily News
The newly revamped "Palmyra Circles Initiative," an anti-poverty force, is expanding into Lebanon city.
By way of making connections to and relationships with middle and upper-class folks, the poor are being helped on their way to a better life.
With the Palmyra group's expansion into Lebanon and the larger geographic perspective comes a new name, "Support Connections of Lebanon County."
Started about four years ago, the goal of the non-profit group is to build relationships across class lines to help low income people break out of the prison of poverty.
The first step is to make others aware of the problems facing those families.
One observation from Lee Smedley, one of the founders of the Palmyra Circles Initiative, and volunteer executive director of SCLC, is that people in society who make the economic decisions that affect others aren't in the trenches with the people who are struggling to make it through every day.
Families may be working hard, he said, but still not be able to break out of poverty.
Poverty in Lebanon County is real, Smedley said, with one out of three families in Lebanon not being able to meet their basic living expenses.
The relationship starts with a weekly meal, usually at a church, where low-income families are matched with volunteers who can be classified as economically middle and upper-class. Childcare is provided so clients can concentrate on building relationships and receiving training.
"After the meal, there's interactions and connections - it's not like sitting through a lecture," Smedley said. "It's very inter-active."
People on the fringes of economic stability lack the connections and the relationships that could help them to improve their lives, Smedley said.
Finding the right connections can be the key to lifting some families out of poverty, and the SCLC pairs people in need with people who can help them.
"We're working with small groups, but the ripple effect will be substantial," said Smedley, whose background is in organizational development at the corporate level.
"They need to know they can make a difference in their own lives," Smedley added. "You can throw money at the problem, but the cycle (of poverty) may be repeated. By being in a team, you help them realize 'yeah, my life can be different,' and it takes honest conversations to get there."
It also takes role models, relationships, and creative problem solving; concepts explored in the weekly training sessions.
Circle Initiatives exist across the country, and it was four years ago that Smedley contacted the Rev. David Harris of the Palmyra First United Methodist Church, to accompany him to check out an information seminar about the concept, and to decide if they could bring the program to this area.
"It made sense; good thinking, good service and good community development," Harris said. "And it's working - it's not just a concept written on a piece of paper somewhere. It's working for both the folks who are making the journey out of poverty and the team members who are helping them.
The group is looking to help those who may be just above the poverty level, but are not yet self-sufficient.
"They're on their own, but their lives aren't quite stable yet," Smedley said. "In a very logical way, it helps them to look at 'what are my resources,' and after three months of training, we ask 'what's working for you, and what's not?' and if they can see how they could make a change a few months from now. We look at what they need to do to make a change."
"We say 'what's important to you, what are your goals?'" Smedley said. "It's about the person and their goals."
Success stories are frequent; one woman who was a bus driver is now in college and on the dean's list; another woman started her own cleaning business, and has swept poverty under the rug.
"What guides this is they have an agreement, something they're working on together - not hoops to jump through - and that brings us back to the importance of the relationship," Harris said.
Jan Glatfelter, a volunteer with SCLC, said, "There are people who could help them find the resources they need, and after awhile, it becomes a family," Glatfelter said. "Being a part of this team really speaks to me and I think we're doing good things."
After completing a 14-week training session, the clients are teamed with two or more "team mates," who have also received training on how to support the lower-income family on their journey toward a more stable life.
The support teams will continue to meet twice a month for an additional 18 months, while they focus on the person or family's goals.
So that the families don't recycle back into poverty, they get direction from the community.
"Who we are and how we treat each other is what matters," Smedley said. "You just need to have a little group of people that can say 'this could work.' "
When he began working with the Palmyra Circles Initiative, Harris said he thought he understood poverty. Seeing it close up made it so much more real.
"Everything in poverty is unpredictable; just getting through every day, trying to survive every day (is what it's like)," Harris said.
Harris' wife, Penny, has 30 years experience in the mental health and drug and alcohol fields, and uses her expertise to help in the SCLC.
"The new curriculum is faith-friendly, too," Harris said. "We don't proselytize, but there's more room for a group that wants to express their faith."
Various community service agencies, such as Lebanon County Christian Ministries, the Community Action Partnership, and Step Into Life Ministries, help to channel possible clients to the SCLC.
"The conversations I've had with folks from these agencies, they say 'we really need this,' because some of their people are searching for a good stable life, and if somebody walks with them for a time, they'll be able to make it," Smedley said, referring to the 18-month commitment.
The focus is always on the relationship between the helpers and those needing help, Smedley said.
The results they've seen so far show that this plan has promise, Smedley added.
Occasionally, a client won't stay with the program for the full 18 months, because they have already made good progress on their own, he added. And that's ok, as long as the person's life is improving.
"It is about them; about leading their own lives," Smedley said.
The Rev. Daniel Donmoyer, pastor of St. Luke Lutheran Church in Schaefferstown, is another participant in SCLC.
"We're trying to help the upper and middle class understand the lower class, so there can be systemic changes," Donmoyer said. "You have to realize there are inefficiencies in the (current economic) system."
As a completely volunteer organization, the SCLC team is looking for advocates who could offer help in everything from preparing and serving the weekly meal to babysitting to writing and obtaining grants.
New sessions will begin in Palmyra on Monday, Oct. 5 and in Lebanon on Tuesday, Oct. 20. For more information, contact Lee Smedley at 610-914-3846 or: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Additional information is available at www.supportcircleslebco.org.