Leaders from three Ontario communities in Sarnia next week for training


Officials with Lambton County Circles will host representatives from three Ontario communities next week in an effort to expand the groundbreaking anti-poverty initiative.

“We’re just thrilled,” said Gayle Montgomery, Circles coordinator and national recruiter for the program. “It gives us a chance to really showcase the community and everything that has happened to us in the last four years.”

Ten staff members from various agencies will be in Sarnia for the in-depth training, taking place Sept. 9 to 12.

Montgomery and her team will deliver three days of classroom training, and will host the guests at three evening Circles dinners, as well as a Community Action Poverty Simulation.

“A lot of communities have become very excited about the outcomes that we’ve achieved here – it’s small steps,” said Montgomery, noting that at least one other Ontario community has come on board for a training session scheduled for January 2014.

Lambton’s Circles program is the first of its kind 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 about 60 families involved with the program, including about 110 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.

“We’re feeding 70 to 80 people at a time, so we are always looking for groups that will come in and sponsor a dinner for us or get involved that way,” Montgomery said.

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.

“Circles, in our community, is an amazing vehicle for collaboration,” Montgomery said, pointing to partnerships with organizations, including Lambton College and Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Sarnia-Lambton.

The final day of training will involve a Community Action Poverty Simulation, hosted by the Circles team and about 25 people living in poverty, who will be reversing roles. The trainees from out-of-town will serve as those living in poverty.

“The simulation really invokes a lot of emotion, and people really start to understand the struggle of folks in poverty.”

“They will go home with their training and experience, and start to plan their own initiatives,” said Montgomery, who isn’t yet revealing which communities are involved in next week’s training.

“I”d hate to have our announcements pre-empt their own.”

As national recruiter for the program, Montgomery will work closely with each community as it rolls out the Circles program, acting as support coach and conducting site visits.

Locally, the program has grown by leaps and bounds since its inception four years ago.

Last year, 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.

“Often times, folks fall through a crack or they just get too overwhelmed, and too afraid to reach out for some much needed supports,” Montgomery said. “Through Circles, they have found the confidence, and the people who are there to help.”