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Circles Grand Rapids helping residents end cycle of poverty

This dispatch was added by one of our Nonprofit Neighbors. It does not represent the editorial voice of The Rapidian or Community Media Center.

A newly launched initiative in Grand Rapids is bringing the community together to help residents break the cycle of poverty.

/Holly Downer

Breaking Poverty Cycle in GR

Community comes together with neighbors to end the vicisous poverty cycle.

/Holly Downer

/Holly Downer

In the city of Grand Rapids, more than 26 percent of citizens live at or below the federal poverty level, which is $24,036 for a family of four. Today in our community, one in four children is living in poverty. According to the 2015 VoiceGR study (a product of the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University), more than one in five (21 oercent) greater Grand Rapids residents reported not being able to meet their basic needs in 2015. Most of these residents are employed but living paycheck to paycheck.

The need is great, but so is the response. West Michigan is saturated with non-profit organizations focused on many of the key issues that contribute to or result from cycles of poverty. Further, the Johnson Center for Philanthropy estimates that in Kent County alone, there was more than 907 million dollars in charitable giving in 2013 (the most recent data available). With so many people working hard to do good and so much money given to charitable causes, why are so many Grand Rapidians struggling to climb out of poverty? Where is the disconnect?

Earlier this year, Grand Rapids Metro Ministry ( launched Circles GR. The Circles program was chosen specifically because it doesn’t duplicate or compete with the good work already being done around poverty in our community, but rather engages the community to move from a focus on management of poverty to collaboratively owning the solution to poverty.

Circles Grand Rapids is part of Circles USA, a high-impact strategy that engages the community in owning the solutions to poverty by:

  • Empowering people in poverty with skills, knowledge, and support to achieve their goals to become self-sufficient
  • Mobilizing volunteers, community leaders, and organizations
  • Developing leadership
  • Fostering community-level change by raising the community's poverty IQ
  • Addressing systemic barriers faced by families trying to move out of poverty

In the Circles model, a Circle Leader (a person or family with low income who, with ongoing training and support, is leading their own life out of poverty) works with two Circle Allies (middle-income community volunteers who accompany Leaders on their journey). The Leaders and Allies meet weekly over 18 months for support, learning, and accountability. The current Circles Group is hosted by Inner City Christian Federation, a Circles Grand Rapids launch partner.

On Monday July 25, 2016, local leaders and community members gathered as Circles Grand Rapids launched the community engagement portion of their initiative to “inspire and equip families and communities to resolve poverty and thrive.”  The community engagement or “Big View” element of the strategy provides an important space for Circle Leaders, Allies, local leaders and community members to have open discussions around systemic barriers to escaping poverty and the strategies needed to remove these barriers.

At the inaugural Big View meeting on July 25, the energy in the room was palpable as a number of influential Grand Rapidians shared their own stories. Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss, who considers Circles Grand Rapids to be a “necessary and critical” initiative, shared her story of growing up in poverty. Mayor Bliss described the crucial roles that mentors and champions played in her own journey out of poverty and applauds the Circles model for putting support systems in place for Circle Leaders to lead their own lives out of poverty. Kathy Crosby, President and CEO of Goodwill Industries of Greater Grand Rapids, shared her struggles to keep her home and feed her children after losing her job when she was a young mother. Lynda Sweigart, Executive Director of Hope Network Workforce Development, shared her journey from homelessness and how she discovered first hand that not all neighborhoods have the same opportunities and access to resources and services.

The testimonies of community leaders were powerful, but it was the stories of the current Circle Leaders that truly illustrated the impact of this program and filled the room with hope.

One Circle Leader who had been laid off after 20 years with her company and found herself back in poverty stated, “Circles opened my eyes to see that it’s possible to get back on my feet. I plan on doing great things in the future.”  

Another Leader shared that as a young single mom, people were insistent that she would miss out on many opportunities because she became a mother at a young age.  She shared “Every time I get myself out of the rut, I end up back in it. Circles is helping me dig out for good.” She is on her way to owning a home and getting a college degree.

A Leader who is in graduate school pursuing a MBA confidently stated, “I know I’m going to get out of poverty. Circles gives us the skills we need.” Once she’s completed the Circles program as a Leader, she plans to move into the Ally role.

Another Leader shared that even though she is working hard to build her skills, a long history of limited resources leaves her hesitant to make the difficult decisions necessary to change and grow.  Her Circle Allies support and encourage her as she navigates these decisions. She says with pride, “I finished my bachelor’s degree and I’m sending two of my kids off to college next month, all while I’m in poverty.”

As a community-driven initiative, there are many ways for community members and organizations with a passion to alleviate poverty to get involved with Circles Grand Rapids. There is room for Allies, meeting facilitators, programming assistants, meal coordination, child care, administrative assistance, Big View research and advocacy, fundraising, and more.

To learn more about Circles GR, please contact Rev. Julie Liske, Circles Chapter Director, [email protected] or 616-719-4510 and visit

To learn more about Grand Rapids Metro Ministry, please contact Executive Director Holly Downer at [email protected] or 616.333.2896 and visit

To learn more about the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy, please contact Stephanie Adams at [email protected] or 616.331.7585 and visit

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