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.

Nothing is simple when living with less

By Scott Dunn, Sun Times, Owen Sound

Zana Strange and her son Ethan 8, resting on the coach unwell with a fever, in  their Owen Sound home. Strange struggles to keep jobs because of the demands of her son's health care needs.

Zana Strange and her son Ethan 8, resting on the coach unwell with a fever, in their Owen Sound home. Strange struggles to keep jobs because of the demands of her son’s health care needs.Zana Strange proudly watched her son Kohl receive his diploma in a small, private ceremony in an Owen Sound church basement earlier this month.

Zana Strange proudly watched her son Kohl receive his diploma in a small, private ceremony in an Owen Sound church basement earlier this month.

She and others applauded the 20-year-old’s accomplishments, as well as those of his nine peers in a life- and work-preparation program, Getting Ahead, which seeks to get people’s lives on track.

The program is part of the Bridges Out of Poverty program funding by Ontario Works through Grey County Social Services, in partnership with the Adult learning Centre.

It helped Kohl appreciate how procrastination is one of the “things I do to myself to keep myself held back,” he said in an interview at his mom’s place afterward. He also has a learning disability and social anxiety to overcome. He lives in public housing on about $450-per-month child-support.

Zana Strange, 49, graduated from the same program in 2012 after she got a referral from the county.

She agreed to give The Sun Times a glimpse of her family’s life, to kick off the paper’s periodic look at the overall issue of poverty.

She lives with her youngest son, Ethan, 8, and daughter Brynne, 17.

Since 2009 Strange has been a single parent in what she calls situational poverty — imposed through past family violence and current circumstance. She and her three kids have relied on food banks, public assistance and kindhearted people since 2009, since Strange said she left a violent relationship.

She pays half the utility bill to pay the phone bill, then trades that off to buy food in an endless cycle she wants no part of, she said.

“What do I do? And then I feel guilty if somebody at the food bank who works there sees me buying apples. ‘Well why are you going to the food bank, you obviously have enough money to get apples?’” Strange imagines others must be thinking.

Kohl used to wave off breakfast, saying he’d pick up something free at school. He was just saying that because he could see there wasn’t enough food, his mother said she now knows.

“There’s also the embarrassment, there’s a bit of shame there personally, that I’m not a good enough provider for my kids. Because I know I could be out there working. I’ve been to university for seven years.”

She attended Ryerson for film studies but she never completed her degree. The first time around she left to accept a costume design job on The Campbells television show. Several years later, then-married and bringing Kohl to classes, she couldn’t make it work. The marriage failed and she moved to Grey County “on a leap of faith.”

She took a carpentry apprenticeship through Ontario Works, fell for a renovation contractor and ran that business with him until she said she ended the relationship in 2009.

The problem for Strange now is her youngest son has health problems and she’s needed at home to take care of him. Ethan has asthma and frequent bouts of bronchitis keep him home from school for weeks at a time, she said. He also has attention deficit disorder and mild autism.

Who else will stay home with him, advocate on his behalf at school and to doctors, she asks. People say get a babysitter, but Ethan would rather his mother stay home, she said. His celiac disease makes shopping for gluten-free foods costlier and limits the food bank’s help, she added.

She can’t keep jobs because she misses too much work to take care of him. She’s been fired three times since 2011 for missing work to care for Ethan, she said.

She has worked as a trail guide and at an apple orchard in Clarksburg, as a custodian, as a stablehand and in a pizzeria where she was asked to negotiate how much pay she could do without on payday, and at two hardware stores, she said.

Her way out of poverty hinges on her young son’s health improving, she said. He was home the day of this interview, with a fever that seemed to have passed, his mother observed when he came downstairs for an apple.

She raises her son and daughter at home with $1,670 per month: $445 child support from first husband for her daughter, $700 Child Tax Benefit, $300 Ontario Works and $225 Ontario Disability Support Program for Ethan’s tutoring and health supplies.

She frequently does without another $300 child support from Ethan’s dad, Strange said.

She said her frustration over her inability to change her situation has prompted her to join some committees which advise agencies on better ways to help the poor. She also intends to write a book to throw light on how domestic violence and then the justice system throw women into poverty.

But there has been some improvement in their lives.

Strange drives a van paid for with $3,000 from her mom, whereas for a year she had no phone or a car while living in the country. She finds the cost of three monthly bus passes is similar to the costs of owning a car.

She got a cellphone, provided at first by Victim Services for safety. She added a landline and now she has Internet to help her work on poverty committees and for her daughter’s school projects on a donated computer. She got a TV in December but there’s no cable. They watch DVDs and online movies.

She was sleeping with her young son until December, when she got her own bed.

Most significantly, after moving nine times since 2009 and paying rent of upwards of $1,000 per month, she, Ethan and Brynne moved into a bright, three-bedroom, two-storey home in Owen Sound’s Ordinance Park, in rent geared-to-income public housing. Now she pays just $142 per month.

If she finds a job she can keep, her rent will increase as a proportion of her income and she can stay as long as she wants.