‘This is how I saved my life’: Carol Steegman on Getting Ahead

April 17, 2019 Published by

I am from Arlington, Ohio, which is part of Hancock County in the northwestern part of the state. I took Getting Ahead in a Just-Gettin’-By World classes from June to August, 2011. It still feels like it was yesterday.

In Getting Ahead, we did a very extensive look at our community. We had four ladies in my class, and we each came from different backgrounds. I came from a middle-class background and, as I say, “fell into poverty” because of personal circumstances and the health of my youngest daughter.

Hancock County has 74,000 people in it. We were just starting to ramp up looking at how many homeless were in the county and the reasons for poverty. The tip of the iceberg for addiction had not affected most people. When I took the class, I was coming from five years of situational poverty and thought there was no way out. I thought this was how I would live the rest of my life. I hated my life, and I was just trying to survive. In the class—and I talk about it until this day—I found myself, and I realized I still had a voice in the community and I needed to start using it.

It is very ironic that we have the hub of Marathon Petroleum, Cooper Tire, and many businesses owned by foreign companies, we were voted a Top 5 micropolitan communities in the last five years, we have a leading hospital—it is not a town that you would look at and think, “There are a multitude of homeless individuals.”

You don’t see homeless people on the street. We have a City Mission. We have found that people are living in hotels or bunking up with other family members. Downtown is being revitalized, so that also leads to an attitude of, “Oh, there can’t be that underlying poverty in this community. We are rich in resources, rich in jobs.” It isn’t until you start peeling back the layers and hear the stories of what is truly going on from those working in the community and the nonprofits industries that you realize there’s a problem.

Right after being accepted into the Getting Ahead class we got into the modules on language and hidden rules, and that was very impactful for me. I grew up middle-class, but going through my poverty situations, I feel like I lost middle-class values, language skills, and the ability to look for resources because I was in the tyranny of the moment and struggling so hard.

Creating goals? I had never created a goal board or a future story board. I never asked questions of my community. I didn’t think I was allowed to. Learning how to look at my community, ask questions, and use my voice along with the others in the class was empowering. Really empowering.

The Getting Ahead theory of change helped me see how to take responsibility for choices I had made and how I could turn those around. And the questions! I don’t think I had cried so much until going through the almost 100 questions leading up to the theory of change and setting your goals. For every class I’ve helped facilitate, that is the pivotal moment for most of the Getting Ahead investigators: those questions and turning that around into a theory of change.

I especially remember that the middle class has a whole way of speaking to individuals—a whole separate language. In poverty we would say, “What you talking about?” I used to call it “shorthand for speaking”—“can’t believe that.” In Getting Ahead we learned phrases like, “Tell me more about that? How does that make you feel?” Phrases with more words and complete sentences.

Before I started Getting Ahead, I thought I would never work again. I was staying home with my micro preemie child. In my head, I never thought I was going back to work. Getting Ahead changed all that.

Six weeks after I graduated Getting Ahead, one of the allies I was partnered with who owned a small computer business, she was the first one who said to me, “What would you think about working 10 hours a week for me, just to get you reintroduced to the workforce?” It was at that moment of her putting me back in the workforce that I said to myself, “I actually could go back to work. It is okay to be a mom and go back to work.” I was so afraid I would feel guilty.

That business owner really helped mentor me to dress better. I was a stay-at-home mom accustomed to baggy T-shirts, sweatpants, shorts, and not caring what my hair looked like because I was home all the time. My new boss would have good conversations with me about what was appropriate for me in the workplace, how to answer the phone in a proper way, and how not to speak over people—even when I had a really great idea. I was used to throwing things out there and didn’t like to wait. Just those little things that I had forgotten how to do because I stayed at home all the time.

Getting Ahead wasn’t the only time I had been told to take classes while I was in poverty. Through the Job and Family Services department, I had to take a class on budgeting. I didn’t like being told to take classes, and I went into it with an attitude of not wanting to learn. In my mind, I knew I didn’t have enough money. I figured that whatever I could scrape by with was how it was, and I couldn’t do any better.

Getting Ahead was the first time I took accountability for some of my actions. I could learn in an environment where others “got me” because they had similar situations, but yet we still lifted each other up. You get in bad situations, and usually you have the “yes people” that tear each other down and say, “Nope, we aren’t going to do better.” Getting Ahead was about cheering each other on, crying with each other, laughing with each other, and still walking out the door of that class and saying, “You know what? Next time I come back, I’m going to do better than I did last time.” It was a totally different experience for me and for most Getting Ahead graduates I’ve talked to since then.

I believe Getting Ahead taught me to love myself and care about where I’m at in my space. And to care about how that reflects on others outside of my space. I want my kids to be proud of me. Not everyone else. My kids. I didn’t want them to say they didn’t know better, and I knew that started with me.

I never thought about quitting Getting Ahead. Instead, I became hungry for that class. It became a reprieve from the true life that I was going through at the time. Most of the time I could not wait to get to the class. There was another Getting Ahead graduate who was facilitating the class, and I looked up to her. I still look up to her. She was a single parent with a special-needs child, was a drinker and was in the bars a lot like I used to be, and she was doing really well and she had changed a lot of things in her life. I can see myself in her, and she was always on fire every time we came to class. She was like, “I know you got this. I know you can do it. We are going to give you more tools for your toolbelt.” I could go home at night and say, “If she can do it, I can do it.”

I distinctly remember in our workbook writing down on the hand model my bridging and bonding capital when I first started Getting Ahead—and everyone was in the center of my hand. I felt like everybody was part of my family, even though that should have been a part of my bridging capital. They were all my bonding capital, and I could never understand that before the class. It was really cool at graduation that I could separate some of those people out. I know to this day who should be my bonding capital and who should be my bridging capital and how to use that in different ways. It has helped me learn to network. I work for a nonprofit now as a family support specialist, and I get to share that information with families. It is such a cool gift to be able to give to a family so they can recognize the difference too.

Before Getting Ahead, I truly thought I was going to be a single mom who left a domestic violence situation, who was struggling to survive by the skin of her teeth, and who thought in dark moments maybe she should just give her children to someone who could keep their lives together. I went from that to graduating from Getting Ahead on August 29, 2011, and saying, “I am going to conqueror the world, and I’m giving this gift to someone else.” I became a certified Bridges trainer not long after graduating from Getting Ahead.

After Getting Ahead, I worked hard on my motivation resource. Learning to ask questions in a motivated way and not being complacent with someone giving me a flat answer to questions are skills I gained. During Getting Ahead, I interviewed an individual who had been with the police department with respect to the safety of citizens and different aspects of homelessness. My old self would have been complacent and said, “That is a good enough answer.” Not anymore. I like to push the boundaries. I like to make people uncomfortable. I want them to think deeper, and I want to bring the voices of people with lower incomes to the table. Before Getting Ahead, I would not have done that.

I will never forget going to the Job and Family Services office to reup my SNAP benefits and Medicaid. At that time I had a 1999 Chevy Lumina with 300,000 miles on it, and it was my only means of transportation for my daughter to get to multiple doctors’ visits. I remember the woman at Job and Family Services asking if I had any disposable income. I said, “We are surviving on my daughter’s Social Security and SNAP benefits.”

She asked if I had a vehicle. I told her, “Yes.”

She said, “That car is worth $2,000. You could sell it.”

I cried that day.

I thought, “You want me to sell my vehicle?”

She said, “That is something you can sell.”

I said, “That is one of the small pieces of my life I still have. How am I supposed to get my daughter to her doctors’ appointments?”

She said, “Oh, you can take a taxi.”

When we did our assessments in Getting Ahead, we had folks from Job and Family Services come in and talk to us. One of the things one of them said was, “I never think about the person on the other side. Only with respect to what they need. It is just a question. I have a car? I have the means to sell a car. If I had an extra car, I would sell it.”

It was very enlightening for me to hear someone say, “I have extra.” It would not bother me to get rid of an extra. She actually said, “I never thought of the person on the other side of the desk.” It made me think that when I grew up middle-class, I never thought of the person on the other side. On Sunday we would go to church, and in between church and lunch my dad would turn on the TV. There was always a commercial: “Please give money so we can send money to children in Africa.” That is what I thought poverty was. When I stepped into poverty, I thought, “Man, this is not any fun, and I don’t know how to get out.”

Before I started Getting Ahead, I got pulled over, and I had let my car insurance and driver’s license lapse. I drove anyway because my older daughter came over for a visit and needed a ride to get to work. In my mind I thought, “I can’t let her miss work. At least she is working.” So I said, “Well, it is daytime, not many police out…I will take her to work. It is a five-minute drive. It will be no big deal.”

I got her to work, and when I turned around and came back on the street, there was a state patrol car. I freaked out, and the state trooper pulled me over. My youngest child at the time was getting ready to turn two. She was still on oxygen, was buckled into her car seat, and weighed only 15 pounds. I remember the trooper walking up to the window, and I was thinking, “If he takes me, I have no idea what will happen to my daughter.”

Thankfully, he let me call a friend and let me have my car towed home. It was jarring to think that in my previous middle-class life, I would’ve never let my insurance lapse, it would not have bothered me to be pulled over by a police officer, and I would not have been scared to death. It is amazing how life can change.

Now I’m a Getting Ahead graduate, I’ve gone through leadership classes, I have become a Bridges trainer, and I do training and speaking engagements for law enforcement. I’ve attended drug court and had the judge say, “Ah, I see Miss Steegman is in the courtroom. She runs the Getting Ahead program in Hancock County.”

I’ve even had the opportunity to speak on behalf of a Getting Ahead graduate in a federal courtroom. I would’ve never imagined that. Getting Ahead helped that gentleman walk out of the courtroom that day a free man. He does meetings in our local jail, and that impressed the federal court judge so much that the judge decided not to put him back in prison. The judge didn’t want to take him away from the good work he is doing locally. No other program I know gets results like this, where it helps people literally change their lives so much.

I tell people all the time: “If you ever thought about your deepest wish to change your situation or give yourself a second opportunity at a different life, this is it. If you can give yourself enough time to be selfish and think about yourself, this is the class.”

Most of the time, 98% of the time, I tell people my story, and I tell people other Getting Ahead graduates’ stories so they know it is for real. Sometimes you see the hunger in the eyes when they have struggled for so long. You see the weariness, but there is still a light in their eyes.

This is how I saved my life. This is how my child is not going to end up like me. This is how people who have been addicts, in prison, people who never had jobs and never had a driver’s license—this is how turned they turned their lives around.

That is usually what attracts people to Getting Ahead: being really real and honest. I’m not telling them they have to take the class. It is not a requirement. It is a gift you give yourself.

If you are ready to give yourself a gift of a different life, then this is the way to do it.

My facilitator, a middle-class woman, called me at home one night after we had a significant talk about all of us as single parents. We were taking the class because we wanted our children to have better. She called me at 9:00 at night: “Hey, I just wanted to check in with you. I know today’s class was really, really difficult on all of you.

I said, “Yes, it was. It is hard to come to the class sometimes. I should be spending time with my daughter.”

She said, “I would really like for you, next time you come to class, I give you permission to be selfish and to think about Carol. I’m giving you permission to think about what Carol wants and who Carol is.”

I broke down crying on the phone. There was something about someone saying that it was okay for me to think about how I wanted to live the rest of my life…it was weird for me to hear that from someone. That class was so emotional, and I think about all the other Getting Ahead graduates I had the opportunity to watch grow and see what they are doing now. We have 20 who stay in close contact. I see each one of them get emotional, even the guys. It never ceases to amaze me how heartfelt and thankful we all are for Getting Ahead. It changes lives.

For the about the last two years now, our local nonprofit that carried Bridges and Getting Ahead actually got rid of the program and is not funding it. I was the Bridges coordinator for the county at the time. We had meetings two times a month for allies, we were running four Getting Ahead classes a year, graduates were volunteering in the community, and five graduates were signing up to become facilitators. Things were truckin’ along, but we lost momentum since there wasn’t a central hub or leader, a fiscal agent in Hancock County that would allow us to continue running the program. It has been hit or miss for two years now. We still email and text, and a few allies are very interested in getting the program running again. We are trying to find entities to fund it. Some days it is like running up an icy hill with someone squirting water at your feet so you slide down faster. It is frustrating for the graduates—we need that family that we created, and we aren’t back there yet.

These days I have both bridging and bonding capital friends. I hang with a group of peers I work with or for, and I have a group of Getting Ahead graduates I spend time with. We often laugh. We call ourselves the “bilingual” group. The shortened sentences, very familiar, very relational, we cut up together, and then we all have the very businesslike sides of ourselves. Most of us have moved up as far as employment goes. Most of us are making at least $15 an hour. Some are in the nonprofit world, healthcare, and oh, then there’s Joe.

When I met Joe, he had just gotten out of prison. He served five years. His favorite part of Getting Ahead is language and learning how to speak to people. He is now a certified Getting Ahead facilitator. He signed a memorandum of understanding with the sheriff’s department, the same place that once had him locked up. He now runs all the Narcotics Anonymous meetings in the jail. He started out at a small warehouse working maintenance. That warehouse started putting him through classes, and now Joe has an Associate’s Degree in Electrical Engineering Technology. A year and a half ago he got a job with a large distribution center. He is now the lead electrician and maintenance supervisor on the third shift. Joe is the person I went to federal court for. Because of Getting Ahead, I spoke on his behalf, and the judge decided not to send him back to prison. It is amazing what Getting Ahead can do. Amazing.

Currently I am focused on my future story. I want to get back to doing Bridges and Getting Ahead full-time. I don’t know if it is my age or if it is going through Getting Ahead, but I want to tear down the red tape and do the right thing for people. It frustrates me at times, the red tape. I have started making friends with politicians in community. I would love to become a part of policy decisions, and I would love to advocate for others in in a bigger way. I wish I would have found Getting Ahead when I was 19 because I would have gone more into the political field. I live right outside of Findlay, Ohio, a good old boys club. We will see what I do politically.

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This post was written by Carol Steegman

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