The following is an edited transcript of Gina Gibson and Stephen Ralph, both of the Evansville Christian Life Center in Evansville, Indiana, being interviewed by Lynn Jackson, engagement manager at aha! Process. Stephen Ralph is an aha! Process consultant. 

Lynn Jackson: Welcome. Thanks for joining me. It’s good to have you here today. For the sake of everyone who’s watching, let’s start by you introducing yourself.

Gina Gibson: I am Gina Gibson. I’m the CEO of the Evansville Christian Life Center.

Stephen Ralph: And I am Stephen Ralph. I am the director of anti-poverty initiatives here at the Christian Life Center.

Lynn Jackson: Good, thank you. Talk to us a little bit more about your organization and about your day-to-day roles.

Gina Gibson: I’ve been here for 18 years, so I was on the beginning end of our starting Bridges Out of Poverty and Getting Ahead within our organization. Christian Life Center was started in 1986 and was a handout to those in need. Over the years it started to morph and change a little bit, and shortly after I arrived in 2006, we started looking at what poverty looks like in our community and how we can we help move the needle. That’s kind of how the work started. I really started questioning our mission and vision statements and really wanted to see change. So I traveled across the country to four different locations in 2008 to see what was being done in other cities.

Stephen Ralph: My role as the director of anti-poverty initiatives here at the Evansville Christian Life Center involves overseeing our Getting Ahead initiative, which we call GAIN, the Getting Ahead Initiative Network. We are actively engaged and meeting people where they’re at, we’re offering Getting Ahead in a Just-Getting’-By-World, and then we’re adding a lot of post-Getting Ahead support to that as well. We really help folks to move forward and become more stable and self-sufficient. I’ve been in this role for 12 years now, and we’ve done a lot of Getting Ahead cohorts. I’m proud of that work.

Gina Gibson: The director of operations and I looked at the Circles program, which is where we started. I’m going to be honest—we looked at the program and thought it looked like a lot of work. So we put it back on the shelf. Then we were approached in late 2009 by a committee of local foundations and funders that asked if we would be the lead agency for this work in the community. We felt like we were being pulled into that, and we accepted the challenge. For the next three years, we did our Circles work. We found out that Circles, although it was great and gave us a great foundation to start on, included some pieces weren’t a good fit in our community, so we came up with our own program.

Stephen has led that charge for the last 12 years, and it has been a huge blessing to us because it has changed the trajectory totally of who we are here at the Life Center. It changed us from a handout agency to a helping hand up to someone who helps folks reach their potential. And that’s what we see. We say, “When I see you, I see potential.” We know that every single person has that, and that’s what we want for our community. So that’s what we’ve been doing. COVID really changed who we were. We continued our work, but COVID was very good to us. COVID exploded our work outside of our own walls, so we are now doing this in five counties.

Lynn Jackson: It’s amazing. After all the years, tell me some success stories. Talk to me about things that make you smile.

Gina Gibson: I could tell you over and over the stories that we have seen. We have an end-of-year video that has a gentleman in there who came from prison to us. He’s one of the most successful people in our program. He just finished his robotic and mechanical engineering degree. People are completely changing their trajectory of their lives. They are truly a huge part of our community now in making a difference and impact. There is the single mom who was in the Army and is now a homeowner and totally successful. I remember that in one of our first cohorts, a lady said, “Generational poverty ends with me. My children will not know what that looks like.” Her children could model what they saw their mom doing and the changes they saw their mom doing, and they didn’t have to model someone who was still stuck. Stephen can tell you even more stories than I can.

Stephen Ralph: I thought to give you a little bit of background on how our Bridges collaborative group got started here in southwestern Indiana. I have some information that’s provided by Lynn Kyle, who is the executive director of Lampion Center, which is a local therapy and counseling agency. She’s also the chair of our Bridges collaborative group. We got started in our community with Bridges work back in 2004. Ruby Payne was invited through the Southern Indiana Network for Education. She provided training to our local school corporations and educators. In that training a few slots were left open for social service agencies. It was after that training that Ruby met a few of our social service leaders from agencies like the Lampion Center and Aurora, a food distribution center, and others decided that we needed to promote Bridges work in our community.

The Bridges collaborative group was formed, and there were 25 different organizations that financially contributed as sponsoring organizations to the start of our Bridges collaborative group. We have been wise stewards of our finances since then. We are a completely self-sufficient entity and have not had to ask our community for any more money to do the Bridges work. We typically do two full community trainings every year and usually serve about 80 individuals from different organizations in our community at those two trainings. We do a lot of overviews, as well as some consulting work in smaller circles.

I got started with Bridges as a client. I was on the other side of things. I am not from southern Indiana. When I came to this community, I fell into homelessness and spent two years in homelessness. It was during that period that I probably had my greatest aha moment. Certainly, there decisions I had made that contributed to me being where I was at in poverty and being in southern Indiana and trying to figure things out. But what I quickly realized is that it was far more than just me. At that time, in 2008, our country was suffering through the second-greatest economic recession in our its history. There was that to contend with, but there were also the community conditions, the fact that there weren’t livable-wage jobs available, and the poor housing situation, which is still in crisis. All of that was was very difficult to navigate.

On top of that, there were social, political, and economic structures in place that were just making it difficult to get ahead. That was an eye-opener for me. That’s why this work is so important because I’ve realized that without the constant feedback from individuals who are experiencing poverty and telling us what it is, we need to know this so we can become better as individuals and as institutions, and we need to have an eye focused on solving poverty in our communities. I really appreciate Bridges and Getting Ahead.

Lynn Jackson: Tell me about your future plans. Now that you’ve had time to build, what’s next?

Gina Gibson: Well, I’m a planner, and every time I plan, Stephen probably runs, because I see so much vision for GAIN and what that looks like, not just to our county but to all those surrounding us. We live in a tri-state area that is very much like one big city. We have rural poverty and poverty in the city, and it looks totally different. Besides, after COVID expanding into five counties, we’re getting ready to move into Getting Ahead in the Workplace. We have been meeting with companies, and we think we found our sweet spot in our first pilot. We’re excited to not just go into nonprofit organizations or churches, but to go into workplaces to really help with stability. We feel that, ever since COVID, everybody’s been having retention issues, and we feel like a lot of the problems that we’re seeing can be addressed by Getting Ahead. Getting Ahead in the Workplace is the perfect next step for us. We want to continue to grow our collaborative efforts here in our own county and in the counties surrounding us.

Lynn Jackson: If you had someone knock on the door or call you and say, “Hey, I hear you’re doing this; and would you recommend it for my community?” What would you say?

Gina Gibson: Oh, absolutely. One of the things that we’ve been doing this summer putting together a framework, so we have a packet. It’s almost complete, and that packet can be shown funders to help fund our work or to organizations and companies who want to start this work. It tells them exactly what the process is: When we go into an area, we first identify a local agency, then we have listening sessions, and then we hold stakeholder meetings to rally the community and bring everybody together. Having a plan to do that makes things so much more successful.

Stephen Ralph: I would add that, from the perspective of our Bridges collaborative, this is big picture stuff, and it’s important. If we’re going to better serve folks who are experiencing poverty or even solve poverty in America, it’s important that we reevaluate everything that we’re doing all the time. We’re making room at our planning tables for folks who are experiencing poverty to tell us what it is like so that we can make the necessary changes to move forward. That’s why this work is so important. I wanted to add that the Bridges collaborative group is going to continue offering community trainings and strengthen its foundation. In partnership with what we’ve been doing at the Christian Life Center and expanding our GAIN initiative, we’re going to, as a Bridges group, continue that work as well. We’re also working on being in six counties now. There’s a lot of work ahead, but we’ve been able to accomplish a lot.

Gina Gibson: The Bridges piece of it is what brings us all together because it helps everyone to understand what poverty looks like. It brings all of that to light and helps them understand the work more so that they can help things move forward in our communities.

Lynn Jackson: Wonderful. Best wishes as you move forward. Know that there are others out there rooting for you and knowing that you’re making great changes in your community.