Lambton County initiative proving successful

By Tara Jeffrey, Sarnia Observer | Link

Four years after its humble beginnings in Sarnia-Lambton, the Circles program is set to expand across southwestern Ontario.

“We have three sites in our region that are very close to launching,” said program coordinator Gayle Montgomery, who is now a national recruiter for the Circles Canadian Campaign.

“It’s exciting – it really is a great credit to Sarnia-Lambton as a caring community, how successful the initiative has been, and to our local municipal government who had the faith to take it on in the early days.”

Lambton County’s Circles program was the first in Canada, and uses a community approach to support and befriend those who want to leave poverty behind. Volunteers known as ‘allies’ are matched with low-income families called ‘leaders.’

There are currently 60 families involved with the program, including 111 children. Nearly 90 people are acting as ‘allies’ along with others known as ‘ad hoc allies’ who help with sponsoring meals or childcare at the group’s weekly meetings.

Circles works with three full-time staff and about 30 members of a guiding coalition – community leaders from across various sectors including health, education, politics, and faith-based groups.

Lambton College has also been a strong supporter of Circles, Montgomery said, noting that the college became the first in North America to launch a circles program for students.

“It takes baby steps for people to put their lives on track,” said Montgomery. “And they need to be supported throughout those steps.”

In 2012, 51 adults were involved in the program. Of those, 31% increased their earnings, 63% increased their education, 45% attended post secondary school and 49% exited social assistance.

“That is absolutely astounding,” said Montgomery, noting that most of the people who become involved in Circles do not have a Grade 12 education. “We know that education is the key to becoming self sufficient.”

One of those success stories is that of Crystal – a single mom who had a tough upbringing in Guelph. She dropped out of high school in Grade 11, got pregnant at a young age, and was dependent on social assistance.

Crystal, along with Montgomery, spoke at a recent Rotary Club meeting to update the program and its successes.

“I had a lot of shame, low self esteem; I had to rely on others to survive,” said Crystal, who eventually moved to Sarnia, where she was encouraged by local social workers to become one of the very first ‘leaders’ invited to participate in Circles. She was matched up with a young married couple, and a dean at Lambton College.

“My allies became my best friends; I don’t know what I’d do without them,” said Crystal. “It was the first time I really felt worthy.”

She eventually went back to school, and recently graduated from Lambton College’s Social Service Worker program, and was named a recipient of the Garfield Weston Award, a prestigious scholarship offered by the Canadian Merit Scholarship Foundation, which has earned her a summer job in Toronto.

She has also become an avid community volunteer, working with Sarnia-Lambton Rebound, and speaking at various functions.

“The people of Sarnia have really reached out and embraced the Crystals of the world,” said Montgomery. “The foundation of Circles is about relationships – people willing to open their hearts.

“There’s some real magic that takes place.”

For more information about Circles, or how to get involved, visit