Circles poverty-ending program stays connected during pandemic

Original article by Paul Morden at
Publishing date: Apr 18, 2021

A program helping Sarnia-area families make their way out of poverty has kept going through the pandemic.

Circles, an approach Lambton County began using in 2009, has temporarily replaced its weekly dinners in church halls and community centres with phone calls, drop-offs of school supplies and food boxes, and online Zoom meetings for its families, volunteers and staff.

“They all really say, and it’s true, the in-person is way better, but it has been great to have that venue to keep connected,” said Circles co-ordinator Kim Godin.

Lambton County was the first Canadian community to adopt Circles, a program developed in the U.S. that has since spread to several other communities around Ontario.

Most of its families in Lambton are referred from the social assistance program, Ontario Works, and are known in Circles as “leaders.”

They are paired with one or two volunteers, known as “allies,” along with staff members called “coaches,” in an approach that wraps families in emotional and practical support as they make their way out of poverty.

Beth Scheiding, a 27-year-old married mother of two children, ages 6 and 8, joined in 2017 as a leader.

“I grew up in poverty but didn’t kind of know it,” at least until a visit to a dentist when she was nine, Scheiding said.

“He said, ‘I wasn’t worth his time.’ That was my first glimpse of what poverty actually meant.”

Scheiding’s older brother left home when she was 12, leaving her to care for their disabled parents.

Later, she had relationships Scheiding described as “toxic” and abusive, “physically, mentally and financially,” which led to eating disorders, drugs use and low self-esteem.

Pregnant at age 19 by “a guy I had only known three months,” she left him but became pregnant a second time not long after.

“Eventually, I found my husband. We went to high school together and we reconnected, and we got married,” Scheiding said. “I was apprehensive about joining Circles at first because I had a hard time trusting people, but I decided to see what it was all about.”

She was paired with Barb Hall, who has been a Circles volunteer ally for 11 years.

“I literally know I can go to her about anything,” Scheiding said. “She’ll always be there for me and support me.”

Hall said her older sister, a social services case worker, got her involved in the beginning. She stayed and has been assigned to three different leaders, so far.

“It’s like an intentional friendship. You’re there to support the leader as they go through their journey out of poverty, and off of social assistance,” Hall said.

“They call you when they’re having a bad day/ … They can lean on you.”

And what starts out as an “intentional” relationship turns into “true friendship,” Hall said.

“It brings me to tears when I think about how well some of them have done. … They’ve worked really hard.”

Scheiding is a Circles “graduate” now. She became a registered practical nurse and is working full time caring for the elderly in the community.

“I don’t think I would be who I am today if it wasn’t for Circles, honestly,” she said.

There was practical help – grocery store gift cards and food boxes, pyjamas for her kids at Christmas, help when her car broke down, fundraising when her husband, who has cystic fibrosis, needed a double-lung transplant.

The weekly Circles dinners, when they could still be held, brought together leaders, coaches and allies in a safe place for a meal together as family and friends.

“Circles has really shown me the importance of the village that it takes to raise children, and reminded me to carry on through the tough times and always find something good in every day,” Scheiding said.

“Mostly, Circles has shown me that I am resilient and capable of great things, and I feel really lucky to have this experience and to be able to share it with my children.”

She said the practical help was “huge,” but so was the change in perspective she gained.

“If you think about all the things I’ve been through, and where I came from, I didn’t necessarily have the guidance and the tools or anyone showing me how to succeed,” she said.

Circles provided “all those tools and the perspective to help me move forward,” Scheiding said.

“It changed my outlook on life, which changed my whole life.”

Tamara Walsh, 31, has a seven-year-old at home and is a Circles leader who is finishing high school and entering Lambton College in the fall.

Walsh was referred to Circles after moving to Forest from Hamilton, where she grew up in what she described as “generational poverty.”

She learned Circles is designed to help people take down barriers and to support them as they try to move ahead with their lives.

“I think that’s what sold me because I tried so many times to get my life sorted out and I just kept getting hit with scenario after scenario that just put me right back to the beginning,” Walsh said.

“I realized that coming from generational poverty, I didn’t really have the ability to get myself out because I didn’t know how. I didn’t learn it from my parents.”

Through Circles, she found help getting a driver’s licence and accessing a micro-loan program to borrow money for a car.

Walsh said Circles has stayed connected with her during the pandemic with weekly visits on Zoom, and has always been available to offer support.

“There have been a lot of situations pop up through the pandemic I haven’t known how to get through, being a single mom,” she said. “Being able to reach out for mental support has been wonderful.”

Circles dropped off school supplies, food boxes, a laptop and printer so she could continue working on her education.

“Coming to Forest, I had the goal of changing my life but I don’t know if I would have been able to stick with it if I didn’t have them,” Walsh said.

Godin said Circles has helped 221 families, with a total of 275 children, in Lambton so far. Recently, it added a Circles group in Forest, in partnership with the North Lambton Community Health Centre.

“Our staff and volunteers work hand in hand with local partners to address barriers and inequities in our health and social systems,” said Kathy Bresett, executive director at the health centre. “The partnership with the Circles program aligns with our values.”

When someone living in “an under-resourced environment” is trying to feed their family and keep a roof over their heads, “you can work really, really hard and go nowhere,” Godin said.

Circles works to wrap its families with resources, remove barriers and connect them with volunteer allies who believe in them and encourage them.

“You have people in the community who want to walk alongside people who are on their journey out of poverty,” she said.

When the pandemic began, Circles worked first to help its leaders and their families access food and other resources they needed during the initial lockdown, and then made sure they would be able to stay connected as the program moved over to Zoom meetings, phone calls and texts.

“It has been difficult times for families coping with the additional stressors but Circles staff, allies and leaders together found many creative ways to support one another ensuring everyone had enough resources, relationships and reasons to survive and thrive through the pandemic,” she said.

Lambton County obtained the Canadian rights to Circles in 2017 and chapters have been added in London, St. Thomas, Wellington County, Simcoe County, Muskoka, Sudbury, Kingston and Oxford County. The first Canadian Indigenous chapter launched in 2018 in Temiskaming Shores.