Making changes is hard to do, particularly when we are in poverty. The demands of an unstable environment—cars that break down and finding affordable childcare, for example—force us to put all our energy into solving immediate, concrete problems. This phenomenon is called “the tyranny of the moment.” It’s a feature of poverty in the U.S. that makes change difficult because it draws us away from thinking about and acting on our futures. I received a letter recently about change from a colleague named Mary Gruza, who was kind enough to allow me to reprint it here, on the getting ahead network site.

Mary and I worked together on a WebEx training for future Getting Ahead facilitators. Getting Ahead in a Just-Gettin’By World is a workbook and accompanying facilitator notes used by groups of people coming together around the kitchen table to investigate the impact of poverty on our communities and us. We refer to the resulting collaboration as Getting Ahead. If you want to get a complete picture of how Getting Ahead works, you’ll want to read the first 18 pages of the Getting Ahead Facilitator Notes. As you’ll see from Mary’s letter, she went through Getting Ahead as an investigator and will now be co-facilitating a group.

Mary Gruza photograph “My name is Mary Gruza, and I am a member of the Family Success Model at Starfish Family Services in Inkster, Michigan. I have been using Starfish Family Services since 2002, when I signed my second and third children up for home-based Early Head Start. In 2005 my home visitor mentioned a new program Starfish was going to be starting called The Family Success Model, and she thought that we would be a perfect family for it. I took the application and didn’t think a lot more about it. A few months went by and I received a letter inviting me to an orientation for this new program. I still didn’t know much about it, but I figured we might go and see what they were offering. (I have been using state services since 1998; they are always offering something if you say and do the right thing.) I then got a phone call, once again inviting me to this orientation. I found out the day and time and place, and I committed to going. My fiancé was unsure, but we figured it was a free dinner, so why not? Ouida Cash, the CEO of Starfish at the time, did most of the talking that night and tried her best to convince everyone there that this program would benefit them and that making a commitment to this program was going to be in their best interest. She stressed that it was a commitment. A lot of people that night signed their “pledge” (that’s what Ouida did so that we had a mental image of our commitment, our signature on a pledge), mostly for the six bucks an hour they were going to pay everyone to come and sit and eat free dinner and maybe learn something, and the rest of us because they heard about the money that would be available at the end of the program for each family. Yes, my fiancé and I were among one of those groups of people.

“We came to separate groups, and we talked about it at home, and all of the sudden, what was once a free meal and time away from the kids with the added bonus of getting paid for it turned into something much more. As we went through Getting Ahead, something happened to both of us. I can’t speak for him, but I know my whole outlook on my situation changed. When I did my 11 resources self-assessment, I realized that money was not my only problem. I always knew money was not going to solve all of my problems, but I thought it would solve most of the big ones. I realized that was not going to be true. It really hit me hard. I even had to step away from it for a few minutes because the reality of my situation hit me square in the face. It was one of those aha moments. You know, the ones where you go, “Aha, that’s why I have been doing that.” It was great and scary and heartbreaking and exhilarating, and everything all at one moment. It was one of the hardest things I had to do and definitely the most beneficial. I try to do a self-assessment about every six months or so to see what progress I have made.

“Every week as we moved along in our Getting Ahead in a Just-Gettin’-By World books, I learned so many new things. From all of the hidden rules, to what my “back doors” were. I just cannot express in words what the program and the material in the Getting Ahead workbook did for me. I think that everyone in my group—including Joelle and Val, the facilitators—can tell you, there was a big change in me between the time I started the group and the time I ended it. I was a changed person. Not because the book had all the answers or because all the answers were being handed to me, but because I had the knowledge of where to find the answers and I went looking for them. Whether that meant going out into the community to find them, or searching the Internet, or digging down deep inside of me to find them, I found the answers I was looking for, and it is all thanks to the Family Success Model and the wonderful material I read and learned in the Getting Ahead workbook.

“I was so honored when Joelle and Val asked me to come back to help facilitate their next group of families. I didn’t even have to think about whether I wanted to do it or not. And this time, the 12 bucks an hour wasn’t even the selling point, it was just the bonus! I knew immediately that this was something I wanted to do and had to do. I felt that this program gave so much to me, it was my turn to give back to it, and to other families that were just starting on their journeys. I feel such gratitude for the people who allowed me to be a part of this program that I will give back to this program as much as I can. I have spoken to the board of directors on behalf of the Family Success Model. I spoke to the people who fund the Family Success Model. I have done parts of a documentary about Family Success. I did an interview for a radio program promoting Starfish and Family Success. I will do just about anything for Family Success (I think that’s why Joelle always asks me). I owe a debt of gratitude to Philip DeVol for writing Getting Ahead, and also for caring enough to notice that there is a problem that needs to be fixed. It doesn’t seem like there are very many people in this world that care about others very much anymore. I could go on and on, for hours probably, but I guess the theme will just stay the same. The Getting Ahead material, along with a great program like the Family Success Model, is unlike anything I have ever encountered. It really does help, and it helps because you have to do the work; it’s not done for you. You figure out what you need to do, and how you need to do it, and then you do it. The book and the program are just your tools to use. They are not the hands behind the tools doing all the work. The hammer may have the force behind it to put that nail in the wall, but it has to be your arm swinging it, giving it its force. I thank everyone that has given me this great opportunity, and I will be forever grateful.”

-Mary Gruza

It’s hard to get out of poverty in the U.S. today. We can be motivated and be playing by the rules. We can analyze our situation, do a tough assessment of ourselves, and make a detailed plan for building resources. But if our community cannot give us a fair shot at a good-paying job, a fair shot at good healthcare, a fair shot at a good education, a fair shot at fair credit, and support for our transition out of poverty, then our community is part of the problem. Mary is obviously doing her part. We should ask ourselves, “How would she do in our community?” Join the getting ahead network.

-Phil DeVol

About the Author/Consultant:  Phil DeVol, of Marengo, Ohio, has been consulting on poverty issues since 1997 and is co-author of Bridges Out of Poverty: Strategies for Professionals and Communities. He works with organizations and communities to redesign programs which ensure sustainability and better serve people in poverty. Philip is the author of Getting Ahead in a Just-Gettin’-By World: Building Your Resources for a Better Life, a workbook that combines Dr. Ruby K. Payne’s work on the hidden rules of class, research on knowledge transfer, and the knowledge of participants living in poverty. Philip served as director of a substance abuse treatment facility for nearly 20 years. He consults for aha! Process, Inc.