Getting Ahead is making a difference all across the country. For this piece, I interviewed Jennifer and Jason Kamp, recent graduates from the Midwest.
Ruth: Tell me about where you live.
Jason: We live in Geneva, Ohio, which is famous for Geneva on the Lake, a tourist attraction right on the lake and 40 miles west of the Pennsylvania border. We graduated from Getting Ahead in October 2018.
Ruth: What made you decide to participate in Getting Ahead?
Jennifer: Well, we both had struggled for many years dealing with poverty. My husband had worked really hard to overcome that, and he got a good job and I had been going to school. Last fall, Jason lost his job. And so we ended up going four months without income. We learned about the Getting Ahead program, and we decided to sign up.
Jason: Right after I lost my job was the first class. I had actually trained the facilitator’s husband at the school I had worked at. So I knew Lois personally and knew she was holding these classes, and I was interested in taking the opportunity to attend.
Ruth: Describe to me what Geneva is like. What did the mental model of the community look like during Getting Ahead?
Jason: Geneva is actually in a better situation than Ashtabula, Ohio, even though it is all a part of the community. Ashtabula was our focus. There is a lot of poverty. Lots of businesses benefited from people living in poverty. In Geneva, the median price of a home in is $90,000–$100,000. In Ashtabula, the median home price is $35,000.
Jennifer: Geneva is Ohio’s wine country. We have a great park with a beach right on Lake Erie. There’s a tourist area by the lake. It is just a beautiful place to live. There’s a beach and a marina right on Lake Erie. When they closed the port in Ashtabula, which had a big industry, the whole town went down.
Ruth: What made the most impact on life from Getting Ahead?
Jennifer: When we were in a crisis situation, they provided us with resources that helped us in different ways such as keeping our utilities on and keeping our home from being foreclosed. I was eight months pregnant, I ended up having a daughter in October, and we were going through a lot of stress with that. They provided food for the family and fuel for the vehicles so we could continue attending the meetings and doctors’ appointments and such.
Jason: The information on hidden rules, that really prepared me for the job I got right after I graduated from the Getting Ahead program. I was offered a job at Cuyahoga Community College, which is the big community college in Cleveland. I went from a smaller school in Ashtabula, which was more laid back, to learning more professionalism and how to carry myself in a higher education environment. What I was able to learn through Getting Ahead really helped me learn a better way to carry myself in my new job.
When I say “carry myself,” I mean the way I interact and how I speak, using more formal language. Even how I dress, wearing polo shirts and nice pressed pants. When I say “more professional,” there are things you can talk about in an informal environment that you can’t talk about in a higher education system, like religion. It is so diverse in that county, you have to speak at a higher level of respect for all religions.
Ruth: What was the biggest benefit of Getting Ahead?
Jason: I think the biggest thing with the Getting Ahead program is the potential that it has to drive communities forward.
Jennifer: Getting Ahead can meet each individual on their level and their situation and can provide appropriate guidance to move forward and better their lives.
Ruth: What can you tell me about the group discussion dynamic?
Jennifer: It worked well. When Jason first lost his job, we were shocked and of course scared. We didn’t know what was going to happen next. We had faith that God would provide for us. Getting Ahead definitely provided for us. Our group was outstanding. At the beginning, before we dug into the work, we set up rules for our group and things we would like to work toward succeeding at. One of the things we said was that everyone was to be positive and keep in a happy mood. We looked forward to going each week, and it was fun. It was at the YMCA in Ashtabula. They gave us lunch, and our group stayed on topic for the most part. After every session, we were given gas cards, which helped a lot.
Jason: The group was amazing because of the diversity we had and where everyone was coming from. We had single moms, we had moms struggling in relationships, our situation where we didn’t have any income coming in and were about ready to have our fourth child, but it gave us hope. We looked forward to seeing the people in our group every week. Because we developed relationships and friendships with them. We looked forward to bringing in new materials and advice that could help the people we were meeting. I’m a workforce training specialist. I teach people how to drive semi-trucks and how to get their commercial driver’s license. Part of my job is classroom instruction, and I was able to learn a lot from use Lois and look to her as a role model for my teaching career. I learned a lot of skills from her just watching her work and facilitate the sessions. I was able to carry that into my classroom training.
Ruth: Do you still see friends from Getting Ahead?
Jennifer: Last time we saw them was in the follow-up class, Staying Ahead. Right now, with it being my last semester at Kent, I’ve had so much homework to do and with the little one, I plan on following up when I’m done and keep up with the people that we met. I will have an associate’s degree and will be certified in small business applications, computer software applications. We are still friends with folks on social media.
Ruth: What has your journey been like?
Jason: I grew up in generational poverty, even Section 8 housing and welfare. Jen was lower middle-class. Jen had two working parents. She went through situational poverty when she went out on her own before we met. Before we met, I had a good job by myself. After we got married, Jen had two children that she brought into the marriage that put us back into the definition or classification of poverty. So then we started at that point to climb out. With having more children, the poverty definition, you continue to stay in poverty, you would call it.
Ruth: What problems did you encounter as a direct result of poverty, and how did Getting Ahead help you deal with that better?
Jennifer: I think that we were in survival mode. We were constantly trying to put out fires: for example, keeping the electricity on. We had to run to Job and Family Services to fill out paperwork, and then something would happen and we would not have money for gas. We kept trying to figure things out one after another. Before we began Getting Ahead, we didn’t understand the battle that was in place with being in poverty. Getting Ahead helped us wage a war against it and realize the different aspects that play a role. We learned about hidden traps that keep us from rising from one economic class to another.
Ruth: What examples of middle-class behaviors leave you scratching your head?
Jason: Things we can and can’t talk openly about with people in our income class as far as religion, politics, even things I relate to my hobbies, hunting and fishing. It seems like most people in my class I can speak with in a way that relates to those hobbies. I can compare it to a guy who has an $80,000 fishing boat and a guy sitting on the pier on a five-gallon bucket. Both of them are doing the same dang thing.
Jennifer: For example, I had situations where I’d go to the Goodwill and buy some clothes for $2.00, and I’m so excited because I got a good deal. But it’s not something you go and brag about at work in the middle-class environment. Watching what we talk about and how we present ourselves is a big deal from one class to another.
Ruth: Why would you tell someone else to take Getting Ahead?
Jason: So many services and opportunities are available in our community both on a local and state level, resources that people don’t know about. People struggle when they don’t need to. When they are taught the skills that you learn through Getting Ahead, it helps them have a better chance when they try to go out and be successful themselves.
Jennifer: I also think that it took a lot of embarrassment and shame away for me. I had really been given a hard time from even people in my family for being on public assistance. Then I started to see there should not be those bad feelings that people are judging me. I know I’m doing the best I can. It made me feel so much more comfortable.
Ruth: Did it work well, going through Getting Ahead as a married couple?
Jason: I would’ve been terrified to be in a class with ten women without my wife there.
Jennifer: It made me feel more comfortable and more able to talk with Jason there. We were the only married couple attending together.
Ruth: What is your future story?
Jason: I get to go have coffee with my new friend tomorrow morning, a man I met through this program. He works for Catholic Charities of Youngstown, Ohio. His name is William Niemi, and he is the home retention specialist, helping people stay in their homes when they face hardship. He was able to get us approved for funding to stay in the home and guided us through the whole process. He worked with us to put money away as a security blanket.
He really helped us stay afloat the four months I was out of work. Catholic Charities helped give us the good shot that can lead into our future. They helped us stay in our home and gave me the chance to focus on my new job, where I’m working for a much larger organization with much more growth available.
I’m driven more by helping people and changing their lives than driven by money. I’m blessed when I do so. I’ve been given this opportunity to help so many more people than I did in my previous job. It was guidance and encouragement that I received from Getting Ahead that is going to let me do that.
Jennifer: Even with his job, our children have been given an opportunity to have free tuition and attend college there. It is a huge deal. They know that education is the key to getting ahead. I am going to be graduating this semester, and I will be looking to work. Eventually, our future goal is to open a Christian gift shop in Geneva. We started out years ago with that dream and vision. We had to put that aside. A gift shop, an area where people can come and hang out, do Bible studies, and get books they can learn from and grow with. We’d supply local churches with supplies they need.
Ruth: Tell me more about your coffee with William Niemi.
Jason: Just meeting with him to have coffee on a personal friendship level. He has become a role model to me. He is president of the school board for Ashtabula City Schools, and he is just a good, positive friend to have who continues to guide me with advice for my family and marriage.
Ruth: What did Getting Ahead do for your marriage?
Jennifer: We have a wonderful marriage. Getting Ahead gave us an opportunity to have fun and bond together. When we got married, we already had kids, so life was pretty fast-paced for a long time. We never really got a chance to hang out and have fun. Even though it was stress that we were going through, we had time to laugh and hang out. Make more memories together.
Another thing that was really big in Getting Ahead, my husband was in a lot of pain for a long time, and when he was laid off, we were able to go to doctors to find out what was really happening. Now that we know his diagnosis, we are able to treat him, which obviously is so important. Overall it has helped our kids to see and learn that life is hard, but when you work together with your spouse you can accomplish a lot. Yeah, it has been great for our whole family.
Ruth: Any closing thoughts you’d like to share?
Jason: One of my favorite parts of the program is that there are people in positions of influence in the county who are trying to bring in citizens who live in poverty and are struggling, and they bring them to town meetings, put them on boards and committees where their voices can be heard and they can make a difference. Growing up in poverty and living in poverty, you see that the people making the decisions don’t know what is going on at our level. Giving us a voice is one of my favorite parts of the whole program.