Two years ago Eve Hurt and her three children were living a life of poverty in Hutchinson, and Derby resident

Becky Richardson was pursing her master’s degree in theology. Today Hurt is a circle leader and Richardson is her ally in a mutually beneficial relationship forged in Circles Derby.

Circles Derby is part of Circles USA, which matches families in poverty who are willing, ready and able to change their situations, with middle- and high-income volunteers who work with them on education, goals and stability.

Every week circle leaders – the program participants – gather at Derby’s First Presbyterian Church fellowship hall for a volunteer-prepared meal followed by either a program or a meeting with their matched allies.

“The structure for our evening is to remove barriers that keep people from participating,” according to Charlene Mathis, one of the founders of Circles Derby. “We prepare a meal, provide child care, and do a lot of transporting to help get people here.”

Before becoming a circle leader in the 18-month program, participants are required to take a class called “Getting Ahead in a Just-Getting-By World.”

“After they have completed the ‘Getting Ahead’ class they are matched with an ally to decide on their goals,” Mathis explained.

“Anyone in the community can become an ally,” Mathis emphasized. “[Allies] just need to be financially stable people who will show up on a regular basis and be a positive influence with the circle leader.”

Hurt and Richardson began their relationship in Circles Derby a little over a year ago. Hurt had taken the “Getting Ahead” class in Hutchinson, and after graduating from it “decided I needed bigger and better things for my future story” and moved to Wichita.

Richardson became a volunteer because she wanted to make a difference in people’s lives.

“For me, theologically, I believe that everyone is entitled to live an abundant life, so I wanted to perpetuate that in people,” she said. “My role as an ally is to encourage good decisions and goals that they [circle leaders] set for themselves. This is a two-way bonding; it’s speaking to somebody heart-to-heart. I get as much out of the relationship as they [circle leaders] do from me.”

When Hurt first moved to the Derby area she was on disability and “had to do Uber 10 to 12 hours a day just to feed my kids,” she said. “A year later I was offered the position of coach [for Circles Derby] and I’ve been able to pay off debt, purchase my car by myself, and my kids have food in the fridge every night,” she said enthusiastically.

“I’ve gone from being down in the dirt and feeling like I couldn’t do anything right to pretty amazing, doing things for myself. I couldn’t have done it without Circles.”

Richardson says she has seen a huge difference in Hurt since she started as a circle leader.

“She is meeting every single goal she set for herself,” Richardson said with a note of pride. “She’s going to make it because she has that determination. She has set a goal to get her GED [because] she wants to go on in school to be a drug counselor.”

Richardson said she has seen other circle leaders come a long way during her time as an ally.

“A lot of these ladies [circle leaders] don’t feel like they have enough stability and of being loved in their lives,” Richardson said. “They need someone they can truly rely on who is not going to let them down.”

Melodie Jones has been a circle leader for about two years and is still amazed at the impact it has had on her life.

Although until recently her work schedule kept her from attending the Thursday evening meetings she received “unofficial” ally support from Claudia Peebler, another founding member of Circles Derby.

“I completed certifications and am now back in a better nine-to-five job and I’m buying my first house,” Jones said.

She credits Peebler for helping her realize her goals.

“She [Peebler] encouraged me to move up career-wise, to not stay stuck as a CNA forever,” Jones explained. “I got my Home Health Aid certification and I got an amazing job [with a hospice].

“I was looking to rent a bigger house and found out my credit score was much better than I ever thought it could be – I had stopped checking it – and I qualified to buy a house.” she said. “When I graduated from the ‘Getting Ahead’ program we did vision boards showing how we saw ourselves in a certain number of years,” she recalled. “I remember cutting out pictures of houses and thought [sarcastically], ‘yeah, you can dream that one day you’ll own your own home.’”

Since it was formed in 2016, Circles Derby has served 22 families – 16 circle leaders either graduated from the 18-month program or are still pursuing their goals, and six recently completed the “Getting Ahead” course and became circle leaders in June.

Peebler, Mathis, and Rhonda Cott formed the planning team for Circles Derby after working with a Circles location in Wichita.

Peebler said research shows it takes

two to five years to move out of poverty. When deciding on the length of the program, “Circles USA decided on 18 months, because that was a time period that maybe allies could agree to.”

Circle leaders can come for as long

as they wish, Peebler added. “We have

a person from our first group who is

still with us. She doesn’t need an ally but she still comes – she’s our hospitality person.”

Circles Derby is privately funded through individual donors, grants, civic groups and churches.

“We have received tremendous support from the community,” Peebler said. “We haven’t had to do a lot of fundraising, because when people hear about [circles] they want to be part of it.”

To learn more about Circles Derby, please contact Charlene Mathis, 316-204-3794; Claudia Peebler, 316-788-2140; or Rhonda Cott, 316-210-4995.

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