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United Fund builds understanding of poverty with community campaign

By IVY KELLER • Nov 3, 2016 at 3:00 PM

A good community supports its members most in need.

With this in mind, the Norwalk Area United Fund is kicking off its 2017 community campaign, hoping to reach the goal of $360,000 to benefit more than 20 area programs. 

These include God’s Little Critters, Salvation Army, Meals on Wheels and the United Fund’s own project, Bridges out of Poverty.

Although the Norwalk Area United Fund has been working on “Bridges” for about 10 years, the program is now being expanded thanks to effort by director Linda Bersche and facilitators Neil Creary and Pastor Amy Little.

“It’s huge,” said Bersche of the Bridges program. “There’s just so much that, as a community, (you have to) cherry-pick what will work for you. It all started for us with training. But training is expensive.”

Bridges Out of Poverty is a program started by Dr. Ruby Payne, which aims to give people a better understanding of poverty, especially in sectors like education, non-profit business and healthcare. The program is massive, with literally dozens of books offered by Payne’s company. Each aims to educate people on poverty, especially anyone in the business of working with the under-resourced.

For the Area United Fund, it has chosen to do training.

“The training is divided down into two days,” Bersche said. “Day one is understanding the framework for poverty. It directly correlates with the original book that Doctor Ruby Payne — who is from Ohio — wrote, ‘A Framework for Understanding Poverty.’”

According to the United Fund director, the training teaches “you some tools that you can use not only personally, but in your organization as well to help you understand why people in poverty do what they do.

“Because it’s different than what maybe you would be used to as a person in middle class. People in poverty have a tendency to do things differently. They’re survivors. They’re going to do what they need to do to stay afloat,” Bersche said.

“It’s difficult. It’s difficult for churches and staff and police officers and teachers and medical personnel to understand and if they then are given the tools to help (the staff) cope with what people in poverty do.”

“If you understand some of the difficulties that people are having in poverty, then you’ll start noticing different things,” she explained. “It’s actually expensive to be in poverty. The lure of the cash places, the lure of the rent to own. If you bounce a check, you not only pay, the store pays and it’s going to cost you 60 to 80 bucks. When you’re playing a numbers game, you’ve got to be really careful that you don’t burn that financial bridge.”

For example, Bersche said, just because a doctor has told someone to take their medicine doesn’t mean they can afford it. They might have to stretch it over days or take one pill every other day. These are things that need to be taken into consideration.

The program’s success has led it to be adopted by many organizations, Bersche noted. These include the Ohio Supreme Court and Oklahoma. The United Fund has even been in contact with some to improve their own program, such as Marion County. 

She recalled an Ohio court that extended its hours to 7 at night after being introduced to Bridges, so people working late hours wouldn’t have to miss work if they needed to attend a court date. Then, they would be at less of a risk of losing their job.

Bersche also emphasized the importance of doing even small things to put clients at ease.

“If you have the opportunity to keep your office door open so that it doesn’t seem so intimidating, why would you not do that?” she asked. “Why would you not maybe take out a wall and put in some glass?”

The United Fund’s second step for Bridges Out of Poverty is geared toward giving community members in poverty the tools to get ahead, such as financial literacy. The 9-week program, known as “Getting Ahead,” is strictly by referral.

They already held one evening session this year, although Bersche said they plan to do another 9-week stint of morning sessions for people who couldn’t make it due to schedule issues.

There are ten different sections in “Getting Ahead,” each of which is meant to help attendees (also known as investigators) gain a better understanding on topics such as finances, the importance of choice and the causes of poverty.

Now, the United Fund has decided to continue the program to give students continued support after they graduate from Getting Ahead. This program, Bersche said, is known as the pipeline initiative.

People must be Getting Ahead grads to take part in the pipeline, where they will be able to take part in workshops and are asked to strive for goals such as having a stable job, being able to manage crisis situations, establishing a personal doctor and opening both checking and savings accounts.

“What happens six weeks from now?” she asked, explaining why they decided to create the pipeline.

The idea originally came from Marion County, which established the original pipeline program.

“We’ve learned from their challenges,” Bersche said. “We’ve learned from what has happened with some of the families, what we might want to consider here.”

“They have 150 grads now from Getting Ahead ... that they continue to work with.”

The United Fund plans to establish a monthly meeting with their own grads, like Marion, after the first of the year. With continued funding and success, they plan to continue growing the program—helping people learn the tools to build their own bridges out of poverty.

Anyone interested in donating to the United Fund may call 419-668-0269 or go to the office at 2 E. Seminary St., Norwalk.

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