‘Like turning a 747 around’: A Getting Ahead grad talks poverty and policy change

July 19, 2019 Published by

I am from Muskogee, Oklahoma, but I was born in Aspen, Colorado. I moved to Broken Arrow on my 21st birthday in 1990. I moved to attend a Bible School and stayed. I fell in love with the people.

I participated in Getting Ahead from 2012–2013. I decided to do that because in my job I had met a Bridges coach. I went to a Bridges training, and during that training I said, I need to be on the other side of that. I talked to the director and coach about participating, and here I am.

Muskogee is a medium-sized town with a small-town mindset. Leaders realize that, and the attitudes towards poverty were not helping anything change. So they began an investigation about how to change that and found Bridges. Muskogee is considered rural and has had a population of about 35,000 people for a long time. Stayed the same size since the early 1900s.

From my perspective, I came to Muskogee at a difficult time in my life, and Muskogee reached out. Muskogee has a tremendous heart to serve people. Kind, giving, most caring people I’ve ever met. When I moved to Muskogee, I was getting my children back from foster care because I had suffered a traumatic brain injury. My poverty was situational. My daughter had been diagnosed with stage IV bone cancer. I was fortunate enough to move where my children were in foster care, and they would not have to change schools. It also located us closer to the hospital where she was being treated.

At the age of 16, my daughter passed away. On Christmas Eve after she fought for five years. A tough cookie. That is a big part of my story, although it is hard to hear. I’ve been living with it for a long time.

When I moved to Muskogee, I was not supposed to be driving because the white lines on the side of the roads would give me seizures. People didn’t think I could care for my children, but I was a person that could take care of my children. I could take her to the hospital, but I did not have a job; I was on Social Security at that time. So I became the it person, and I think the necessities helped drive my rehabilitation. In 2006 I tested I had the equivalent of an eighth-grade education and did not have the ability to learn. It could have been a huge stumbling block. At the time I thought they could not fire me from a volunteer position, so I started volunteering, and that is a huge part of my story. Doing that, it helped rehabilitate my brain, plus social connections. Really the social connections.

I am now waiting to hear if I got accepted into a master’s program. I got accepted to the school, and I’m waiting on the program acceptance from the Northeastern State University School of Social Work. If all goes as planned, I will begin that program in 2019. It is a testament of the amazing things that can happen when you have the right supports and the hope that you need.

The thing that hit me most as part of my aha! moment was the mindset you have that you are not working hard enough. I had that mindset ingrained that I was not working hard enough and that is why I was not getting ahead. That is why I was stuck where I was. I was a single mom working two jobs, and even going through the Getting Ahead class, it didn’t really hit me until after I graduated in February. I was following through with my future story, but I had not gotten any further; I stalled. I was driving home from my second job, exhausted from working 70 hours a week, tears were just rolling down my face. I wasn’t sad. It blew my mind that I was so exhausted that I would cry. I realized then that I could not work any harder. I had to work smarter. That was my biggest moment with Bridges.

I can’t say any other part impacted me as much, but learning that poverty wasn’t all my fault was huge. Learning about a living wage—I thought you were supposed to survive on any wage you had and make the best of it. Although that wasn’t the truth, it made being poor easier. I enjoyed it a lot more. If I had known it before, I would have despised it because we were so impoverished. Learning about things that continue to keep the poor impoverished, like predatory lending and buy here/pay here car lots—at that point, I had still never felt like I was ahead enough to get a loan. I had not fallen into that trap, but I was super poor.

On our side, the poverty side, people know what resources are lacking. An example is that our public transportation is really lacking. Public transportation runs 9 a.m. – 4:30 p.m., so you can’t rely on public transportation and have a full-time job. No ifs, ands, or buts. That was a huge aha! moment as far as other people caring about obstacles we were facing.

I am on the board of directors for the board of transportation now. I have found that the principles that keep people in poverty are some of the same issues that keep our board of transportation in the loop of despair, where they are not informed about resources for themselves and what people are depending on for services. Where I thought I would jump in and advocate, I jumped in and am trying to turn a giant 747 around. That’s what it’s like trying to turn poverty around. Kind of the same thing happening there. It has not been what I pictured when they asked me to sit on the board. I found that I have to educate first before changes can be made.

First, it is uncomfortable because you are with people, and it is all strange and a new experience. For some people it would be a barrier because it is a new experience. I’ve learned to make everything into adventures so that adventure took me to a place where I met people who were in the same boat I was in because of different circumstances. At the time we combined Getting Ahead While Getting Out with Getting Ahead, so I met quite a rainbow of people through the classes at that time. It was the most ideal setting because you learn that everyone has a part. Through the way the modules are created, we all took a part to investigate the community, and we all came back together to share that as a group. It makes you into a poverty fighting team of sorts that works to make a difference in your life, and you are making a difference in their lives—it is a very empowering process.

Living in poverty, you encounter so many problems that Getting Ahead can impact. A big one was dental. In poverty, I could not afford dental insurance, so I didn’t have dental insurance. But I needed partials. I needed dental work. Our Bridges program has a dental van that comes once a month and works on teeth, provides dentures, pulls teeth, does fillings, stuff like that. I think dental hygiene and care are some of the biggest problems in poverty that are overlooked. With extreme poverty you can get Medicaid that covers your dental care, but they only cover extractions. So a tooth goes bad, they pull a tooth, they pull a tooth, then you have this rickety smile, then you go to this job interview, and it affects you if you are applying for a job at a front desk, somewhere where your smile makes a difference. Before Getting Ahead, I didn’t know the dental assistance was available. I had no idea. There are a few dental resources in our state, but I would not have known of them before Bridges. It was the kind of thing I didn’t even know to investigate. Getting Ahead teaches us that every time you have a question, start poking around because someone has an answer.

Another big one, the biggest one for me, was the fiscal cliff. I was hanging out on that fiscal cliff for 4–5 years. If anything major would have happened, it would have sent me right back into poverty. It was a teeth-chattering time. If I had not known about the fiscal cliff from Bridges, I might have given up. Knowing that was part of the process helped me to think and organize and deal. Not to mention the knowledge of free clinics or clinics based on income that I could go to, based on our investigations.

Middle class hidden rules can be confusing sometimes. The one that I’m working on now is the transportation issue where buses run from 9 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. That leaves me scratching my head. And policies they have that don’t cover dental for poor people. I understand that cost. I don’t think they understand the cost that it has for society. Physical, mental, and dental health are a huge drain on the functioning of our society. Happy, healthy people do not want to sit at home and live on Social Security. They want to work and be productive. I truly believe that.

I have told other people they should participate in Getting Ahead because it opens your eyes to the fact that poverty is not all your fault. But it also opens your eyes to what parts of poverty are under your control and gives you the resources to change that. If someone who could really use the program didn’t want to go, to be honest, I would tell them, “When you are ready, let me know.” I also would not give up on them. I would be hanging around the edges, doing what I could, giving them facts, using the position that I had in their life at the time.

There were times when I didn’t want to go to Getting Ahead classes. I was tired, and I still had to go to my second job after I finished. But by the end, I didn’t want to stop. It was mind-blowing and eye-opening to me to know it was not all my fault. I went into it believing I was not working hard enough. That was the bottom line.

At this point, my future story needs to be rewritten. I rewrote it to get my bachelor’s degree. I wanted that before 2020, and yes, I gave myself lots of time. I felt that if I crunched it too much, I would set myself in a panic and be my own worst enemy. Starting college was my long-term plan. I fulfilled that, and now I need to decide what I want to do. What I really want to do is open a youth shelter in our community. Our community is a medium-sized community, but it is big enough that we have a lot of homeless people, especially homeless youth. I know we have kids going to school during the day who have no place to sleep at night. I’ve watched high school kids go from the park to school in the mornings because that is where they sleep at night. We have one little park with a “hidey” place that the police can’t see when they drive by, and that is where they sleep at night. They go from there to school. They get breakfast and lunch at school. They aren’t 18, so they aren’t eligible for the services in town. They don’t have places to do their laundry, so they go to a friend’s house to do laundry—with or without the parents’ permission. I know kids who are sleeping in garages where the parents don’t know their children’s friend is in the garage. Heart-wrenching things like that made me realize that I want to be the answer to that problem, not standing on the sidelines.

As soon as I graduated from Getting Ahead, I saw a need in the cafeteria for Getting Ahead dinner. Not enough servers. I would help serve dinner and then go to the classes. After graduation I came back and served even when I didn’t have classes. I served, cooked, cleaned up, and served as part of the steering committee after graduating. I also have taken Staying Ahead classes, Money Matters, Financial Peace University, and right now I’m in a boundaries class. It is really amazing. I found out I didn’t have boundaries—I thought I was a workaholic. That has changed that perspective quite a bit.

I have one friend still that I met in Getting Ahead, Marvin. Watching him grow and morph into who he has become has been quite a privilege. He isn’t the only one, and I think that is the amazing part: to be a cheerleader for anyone there, moving, being a part of Bridges, giving their time, giving it a chance. A lot of people in poverty don’t want to trust that this can work. Can this be real? Really real? When I say distrust, I think it is learned helplessness. No matter what you do, your life can’t be different. The loss of hope.

I have so many people in the community. I work now with three people at my job who have graduated from Getting Ahead classes, and that is just at my job. There are more than 300 grads in the community at this point, and I’m thinking I’m connected with at least 30 of those people on a regular basis. I run into them all the time.

People don’t emphasize enough the need to be in behavioral health treatment if needed while they are in Getting Ahead. Getting the treatment you need is important. Looking at your life and looking at those things can be a very trying experience. If I didn’t have support right now going through this Boundaries class, I would be an absolute mess. I’m finding out that I let people walk all over me all these years. It is hard to fathom that I did that for so long. Self-care is important for people who work in social services, and people in poverty are often overlooked in terms of self-care. Employee self-care is not on the agenda of some employers of the working poor. Some companies work people until they are burnt out, and then they let them go. They just burn out and fade away. Working on self-care is important for Bridges, Getting Ahead, and staying connected.

I want to leave you with a story. I forget sometimes that it was such a big deal, that this moment in my life made such a huge difference, not just for me but for the community. I was with a young adult, and the person had been told that if their water got shut off, the Department of Human Services would remove their child from the home. We had a purchase order from a social services agency, and we went to the water department to use the purchase order to pay for the water bill, but we were having trouble getting them to accept the purchase order. To make matters worse, this was the last day the person could pay the bill before it would be disconnected.

I was standing in the lobby of the water department in the city building. I had determined that I would not leave the building until the bill was paid. The mayor (who was on the Bridges steering committee) walked by with a member of the city council, and the mayor apparently saw the look on my face, so he asked me what was going on. I told him, and he took me into the office and told them to accept the purchase order.

That incident inspired the mayor and city council member to start an investigation into the water department and the billing policies. They found more than a few problems. For one thing, our city relied on disconnect fees as a line item in the budget. Another problem was that those who rented their homes were charged a higher deposit than those who owned. Finally, the time to pay the bill was so short, there wasn’t even a two-week pay period between the time you got the bill and the time it was due. It took a couple of years for them to figure it all out and begin to make policy changes. When new policies went into effect, they solved a lot of the problems. They changed the entire process for the billing department, the deposit rates are all the same now, and if you do not have the 100% of the deposit to put down, you can pay half, and the other half will be prorated into your bill. And there are now two weeks between the time you get your water bill and time the bill is due.

Just one person deciding to stand and having the right social connections to the city council and the mayor made a difference. That’s what got them to start the investigation and follow through. It is just amazing.

Until that day, I never would have thought I would have a conversation with the mayor and be heard. Little things like that change your mindset as you grow. You grow in small increments.

That day was one of those increments. Later on, the same city council member asked me to be on the water board. Watching people grow is amazing. It is easier to look at other people than yourself.

The first year I attended the Addressing the Challenges of Poverty conference, it was in Oklahoma City. Everyone was making a big deal about the Sunday night social. I was so shy and terrified. I made a deal with myself. I told myself I had to introduce myself to three people, and then I could leave. I introduced myself to three people, and I stayed. I make that same deal with myself now. That way I meet more people!

Thank you for reading about my journey. God is good.

 

 

 

 

 

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This post was written by Mary Hicks

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