We All Live Here: Building Bridges

Not everyone experiences life the same way.  We live in the same environment with the same expectations but different realities. The Bruce Grey Poverty Task Force supports people with grounded expertise to participate in solving our community problems.  Members of our Community Voices are graduates from the Getting Ahead program.

In 2018, we completed 4 Getting Ahead sessions in Hanover, Kincardine, Owen Sound and Walkerton with a total of 222 graduates. Getting Ahead is a 15 session (3 hours/session), 8 week program designed to help people create their own path for making a stable, secure life for themselves and their family.

A Getting Ahead Program Evaluation (Wahler, 2015) found that “the program … facilitates positive changes in poverty-related knowledge, perceived stress, mental health and well-being; social support, self-efficacy, hope; and goal directed behavior and planning amongst participants.”  Read the full study at GA-Program-Evaluation-Results_21 Oct 2015. Four sessions are scheduled in 2019 in Markdale, Wiarton, Port Elgin and Owen Sound funded by Grey County and Bruce County.

In 2018, a new Building Emotional Resources course for Getting Ahead graduates was piloted. The  Pilot has been picked up to run for 12 weeks in Hanover in March 2019.

This program is for people who have lost their way at some point and want to get ‘themselves’ back.  Getting Ahead graduates use a workbook full of exercises that invite them to reflect on their life and the way they deal with problems, with losses, and with their emotions.

Taking a constructive approach, participants increase their awareness, build more resources and become stronger as they move from one exercise to the next.   Read more in Emilia O’Neill-Baker’s article “Build Emotional Resources to Own More of Yourself”.

Bridges Out of Poverty promotes an active partnership between people of different economic backgrounds – based on mutual respect – to address poverty in a systematic way. Since 2015, the Bridges Action Group has been coordinating training with community groups on the Bridges Out of Poverty concepts.  In 2018, we provided 2 trainings (39 people) and offered many awareness sessions in Grey County.

The next component of the Bridges Out of Poverty program is the formation of Circles™.  Circles™ is a supportive, intentional, reciprocal, befriending relationship comprised of a Getting Ahead graduate and their family who are moving out of poverty (Circle Leader) and 2 to 4 community-based middle class people (Allies) willing to befriend the family and support their way out of poverty.

Since 2017, the Bridges Action Group has been working on a Circles™ design.  We have been meeting with Circles Canada and organizations in Ontario implementing various models while determining various cost factors.  In 2018, the YMCA coordinated a Poverty Simulation with Circles Sarnia-Lambton and Getting Ahead graduates for professionals in Elmwood. And we hosted a Circles Information Session in Hanover in 2018.  We continue to work on a design and funding for the model in 2019.

Equity and Inclusion: Community Voices engage with City of Owen Sound Council

Renee Schlonies and Tanya Butt presenting to City of Owen Sound Council on behalf of Community Voices

Two Graduates of the Getting Ahead program and Communty Voices members, Renee Schlonies and Tanya Butt asked the City of Owen Sound Council to consider the views of people on low income when making their decisions.

The Community Voices co-chairs provided a snapshot of poverty in Owen Sound. Recent political and economic conditions have contributed to the decline of full-time jobs and an increase in poverty.

  • 60% of people on low-income are working
  • 20% of employees in Grey County have multiple jobs
  • 95% of all new jobs created in Ontario were part-time
  • 1 in 3 jobs in Ontario is temporary, contract, or part-time.
  • Full-time at Minimum Wage of $11.25/hr ($23,400) falls well below
  • Ontario’s Low Income Measure:
  • $23,861 (1 person)
  • $29,706 (2 persons)
  • $36,520 (3 persons)
  • Living Wage for Owen Sound $21.01

Community Voices submitted an Equity and Inclusion for People Living in Poverty position paper to the City showing how people on low income contribute to our community, identifying barriers and inequities; and suggesting recommendations to the Council.

People who live on low income do contribute to the economy and quality of life in the city! The low income community often provides care for each other’s children and exchange food, sharing what each household has. There are networks of support, information exchanges, and some people become community advocates.  Many of those on social assistance or ODSP invest in the community by actively volunteering for community organizations.  Volunteers sustain non-profit agencies such as day-away programs, shelters and food banks. 

When we are on social assistance, we often work part-time and therefore receive reduced amount of assistance.  While social assistance is not taxed, we contribute to taxes through purchase of goods and services; and property taxes are collected from our rents. 

We participate in civil society,  advocate for equity and inclusion, and raise future leaders by educating our children.   Low income communities encourage the creation of programs that can benefit people across all income levels, by sitting on boards and committees, and by sharing stories with decisions makers. 

Our vision includes:

  • a poverty-free city is where people living in poverty are actively involved in decision-making processes at the City and in the community.
  • More affordable and well-maintained housing is available.
  • Healthy food is accessible close to where people live.
  • The City is free of financial predators that perpetuate the cycle of poverty.
  • People in Owen Sound earn wages adequate to support a healthy, active standard of living.
  • Living Wage is instituted throughout Owen Sound.
  • High quality bridging programs are accessible to people transitioning from income assistance to the paid labour force.

It is important that people living in poverty participate in solving community problems, not just their own.  Getting Ahead graduate 2013

Fighting poverty with food security


Public Health Dietician Laura Needham (left) and Jill Umbach, Planning Network Coordinator with Bruce Grey Poverty Task Force, discussed food security issues with Saugeen Shores councillors at their July 24 meeting. Councillors were asked to consider endorsing a Bruce Grey Food Charter to create a just, sustainable and secure food system.  

For the past four years the Grey Bruce Poverty Task Force – politicians, 51 social agencies and community-based partners – have examined the root causes of poverty and identified barriers to change.

One of the main issues is food security – having reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, appropriate and nutritious food – supported by a Food Charter that values health, social justice, culture, education, sustainable economic development and the environment.

Jill Umbach, Planning Network Coordinator with Bruce Grey Poverty Task Force, and Public Health Dietician Laura Needham asked councillors to consider endorsing the Food Charter, which acknowledges the basic right to food, and is a commitment to work to towards a “vibrant, sustainable, food secure community,” Councillors were also asked to reconsider the way they “treat people who don’t have food.”

She said the 21 food banks in Grey Bruce do not address the main cause of food insecurity, so they need to change the “cultural way that we treat people who don’t have food,” so food banks aren’t the “go-to place for people with low income.”

“Rather than looking at a charitable situation all the time… we want those people to actually access other systems – whether it is connecting with fresh produce from a farmer that’s got excess, or whether its connecting to community gardens that are good for mental health but [where they] also can access fresh food….” Umbach said.

Food banks are still needed for crisis back-up, but Umbach said low-income people need better access to food that involves them more in the food system, including community gardens and school snack programs.

Coun. Mike Myatt said the 17 per cent poverty rate for those under-19 in Grey Bruce “struck a chord” and asked the source of the statistic and if the number was broken down further to give a Saugeen shores number.

Umbach said it was Census Canada data estimating that in Saugeen Shores, the average rate would be 14 to 17 per cent because the economy is stronger in Bruce than in Grey County. After the meeting Umbach said the 17 per cent figure represents the number of people under 19 in a family of four with annual income less than $42,000.

Coun. Neil Menage asked if people could legally give away surplus food – he’d had to compost an over-abundant crop of grapes. Umbach said it is “totally acceptable” noting there are Second Harvest programs and they are all noted on a food asset map. Menage also suggested they could develop community gardens in local passive parks.

Saugeen Shores Coun. Dave Myette thanked Umbach and Needham for “planting the seeds” to develop food security, and said he’d bring a motion to endorse the Food Charter at the future town council meeting.

In related news…

Umbach said the first Grey Bruce Poverty Task Force, Bridges Out of Poverty program – Getting Ahead –  holds its first sessions in Port Elgin,  starting on August 14 at the Community Housing Centre.

The program offers people receiving Ontario Works or Ontario Disability Support Program benefits, an eight-week program that looks at generational and situational poverty and looks at the resources available for low-income people in the community to deal with housing, transportation and social issues. Anyone interested should contact their worker for a referral. She said some of the graduates of the Port Elgin Bridges Out of Poverty program would be invited to speak to Saugeen Shores Council at a future date about their experiences.

Getting Ahead program is more social than financial success

By Rob Gowan, Sun Times, Owen Sound

Facilitator Mary Jane Murray

Facilitator Mary Jane Murray

And according to Getting Ahead facilitator Mary Jane Murray, the change people experience over the course of the program is amazing, benefitting not only the individual, but their families, friends and the entire community.

“So many people now have the confidence to finish their Grade 12, to go to college, to talk in the terms of careers, not jobs,” said Murray. “We see people who take courageous steps such as public speaking, where folks actually stand up and speak about their lives.”

The Getting Ahead workshops have been held in communities across Grey County since 2010. To date a total of 114 people in 15 groups have graduated from the workshop, which helps individuals living on no income or low income to build their resources to make their lives more prosperous. It is made possible locally through a partnership between the local Adult Learning Centres and Grey County. The local participants are referred to the program by Grey County social services’ Ontario Works caseworkers.

“Many folks, once they get things stable, they start to thrive and give back to the community,” said Murray. “They start to see how they play a role in developing our community and that is essential.

Personal benefits include families coming closer together and better relationships between parents who are separated, giving their children a more positive outlook on life.

“There are a lot of benefits,” said Murray.

The Getting Ahead program comes from the Bridges Out of Poverty anti-poverty strategy that was developed in the U.S. and first made inroads into Canada in Lambton County. Grey County was the second county in Canada to start implementing the programs.

“Grey County wanted to find a way to work with folks living on Ontario Works dollars and social assistance dollars,” said Murray, who is also a Bridges Out of Poverty certified trainer. “How can they find more pathways, more resources into building a more stable life. Grey County is the driving force, very forward thinking.”

Barb Fedy, Grey County’s director of social services said the county is extremely proud of the work done by participants in the program.

“We have seen tremendous growth in progressing through the Getting Ahead program, determining where they want to go with their future, making plans and working through issues they might currently been struggling with,” said Fedy. “It is a wonderful program to engage with.”

Fedy said social services is committed to supporting the program.

“We hope to see a lot more of our graduates in the future,” said Fedy.

The Getting Ahead program was started locally in 2010 as a pilot project. The first course of eight participants was so well received that Grey County initiated a second group. Each year Grey County has put funding toward the local Getting Ahead program, with grant money sometimes being used to help cover the costs.

“We praise Grey County social services because this program would not be able to continue without their investing dollars right into their budget,” said Murray.

Grey County social services was training its caseworkers in Bridges out of Poverty workshops as were adult learning centre staff members. Then in February 2010, there was a week-long training and certification program done in Owen Sound where dozens of agencies and organizations sent representatives to receive Bridges out of Poverty training.

Murray said she had to go to Minnesota to become a certified trainer in Bridges Out of Poverty and it was her special training that led to the collaboration between Grey County and the adult learning centres.

Murray said the adult learning centres work with folks from all income levels and all walks of life, but have a component of students who live on very low incomes and were “couch-surfing” but trying to finish their Grade 12 education.

“We were seeing people who weren’t getting enough to eat, who had medical problems that weren’t being attended to, dental issues, folks suffering terribly with abscessed teeth,” said Murray. “(Adult Learning Centres manager Tim Nicholls Harrison) learned about this program and felt that it resonated and sort of connected the dots for us.”

The local retention rate — where people who have started the program graduate — is in the 90% range. A rate of 76% is considered a success.

“I think we are doing quite well,” said Murray.

Courses have been completed in Owen Sound, Dundalk, Durham, Meaford, Markdale and Hanover. Murray said adults of all ages have participated in the program, with one course of six people covering six different decades.

“It was really interesting,” said Murray. “It was quite an amazing group.”

The Getting Ahead program includes 15-16 sessions with participants — called investigators because they are investigating their lives — meeting twice a week for about eight weeks.

“We investigate our lives and how do people end up in this spot. What brought us here,” said Murray. “We dig pretty deeply into that.”

They are sent out in the community to investigate their lives, such as how to invest money, the cost of sending a child to school or how to start their own business.

“People are deployed out into the community to find out where that information is,” said Murray. “When they go out in the community they bring back and share with each other the information they have so that all of them are growing together.”

Participants delve into their finances and look at their debt and the expenses they have to deal with.

“What this program does is it shows people that they are simply worthy of having a stable life,” said Murray. “What we are trying to do is build stability.”

They look into the causes of poverty, which are broken into four sectors in the program — The behaviours of the individual, barriers in the community such as lack of good-paying jobs, the risks of using services in the community such as pay-day loan lenders and rent-to-own, and how the political structures are set up and the impact they have on the individuals.

“When you look at the four causes of poverty there is only one where we have any control over it,” said Murray. “This is a huge ‘ah ha’ moment for so many people because they said, ‘oh my God, I thought it was just me, that it was all my fault,’ and it is not.”

To close out the program, participants do an analysis of their personal set of resources and develop a plan for the future.

Murray said the framework used in the program is to build relationships based on mutual respect. It takes out the stigma of class based on income level and puts everyone on an equal playing field.

“In our lives sometimes we have less and sometimes we have more,” said Murray. “When you build relationships built on mutual respect . . . you start to view yourself differently and you start to view other people differently.”

Murray said the Getting Ahead program doesn’t just teach participants about finance, it also helps them grow socially.

“So often when you are living on low income you feel very isolated and very alone,” said Murray. “When people are sharing information with each other they start to bond and they start to see the Getting Ahead program as another way of expanding their social capital, expanding their circle, expanding their life.”

Murray said the program also includes the participation of past graduates in the role of co-facilitator.

“We don’t do it alone and the co-facilitators have been really amazing,” said Murray.