St. Vincent de Paul Society ‘Getting Ahead’ of poverty struggle

By Becky Aubut
Anchor Staff

ATTLEBORO, Mass. — The first class of “Getting Ahead in a Just-Gettin’-By World” graduated six members this week. The Getting Ahead program is a 16-week workshop that helps individuals in poverty build up their resources for a more prosperous life for themselves, their families, and their communities, and was brought to the area by the St. Vincent de Paul Society in Attleboro.

“With St. Vincent de Paul, it has been part of their vanguard attempt to bring about systemic change,” said Diana Reeves, a long-time Vincentian and Getting Ahead facilitator. “For many years I’ve been involved in St. Vincent de Paul’s efforts to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give the man a fish method — and there’s nothing wrong with that, it still needs to happen.”

Basic necessities need to be addressed before anyone can change their life, said Reeves, but this program helps give those in need a self-designed blueprint to build a better life. Irene Frechette, director of special programs nationally for SVdP, had heard about the Getting Ahead program at a national meeting, and brought it to the attention of Attleboro Vincentians. Frechette then got a group together to watch the training videos.

“I admit I was initially skeptical on how 16 weeks could actually transform a person’s life. I’ve been a teacher for 45 years, so I know of what I’m speaking,” Reeves said. “The videos are fabulous and were extremely convincing. It made me very much aware of my personal biases and middle class, stereotypical thinking. The program is extremely well created, and well thought out.”

The program is designed to take people through a series of experiences to getting to know the constructs of what poverty is and to understand that poverty is a lack of resources.

“We think of poverty as lack of money, of being broke; but there are many ways you can be impoverished,” explained Reeves. “You can lack the knowledge that would help you get ahead; you might not have had the education. You might have mental deficiencies that make it very difficult for you to take care of yourself. You might have physical problems. You might have a lack of motivation or good role models. Maybe you don’t have any Spiritual resources to strengthen you in times of difficulty.” 

Wording in the program is also crucial. Those who participate in the program are called investigators while individuals like Reeves are called facilitators. Through the 16-week, three-hour sessions, investigators move through understanding what poverty is, what their role in being impoverished is, doing exercises to see what personal decisions have played a role in his or her situation, and understanding how society may also have played a role.

“Is your situation all your own doing? Is your situation something you couldn’t prevent? Did you suffer a horrible medical issue that put you into this situation? Do you not have transportation and there isn’t any in your town? Is that making it difficult for you to get a job?” said Reeves. “There are all sorts of activities where you begin to plot your position on that continuum that has caused you to experience poverty.”

These acts of self-reflection can be difficult for people and even Reeves admits that she has learned a lot about herself in the process.

“This activity doesn’t apply to those living in poverty, but it’s healthy and thoughtful exercise for anyone because you begin to look at to what extent are you living your best life that you could be living,” she said.

By looking within, an individual can see where to make changes for a better life, to become more active in their community and to be a benefit to others. Then there’s a whole focus on the “hidden rules of social class” that Reeves said she found fascinating.

“What is talked about quite openly are the hidden rules that govern people’s behavior in various economic classes,” said Reeves. “For example, it talks about the ways people communicate in various social classes. People in poverty often derive entertainment and humor from storytelling, and relationships among people in poverty is a primary drive. Telling a funny story is a real skill that’s appreciated. 

“For the middle class, achievement is where it’s at for relationships, and telling your story in an efficient way — almost bullet points — is being looked for in the middle class.”

Understanding the subtle nuances in holding a conversation can help an individual’s transition from classes so “a circuitous, anecdotal-woven tale of half-an-hour isn’t going to do it in an office situation, for example. There are all kinds of hidden rules to learn and feel comfortable to fit in,” said Reeves.

The program continues to break down each investigator’s journey individually and help them “identify the tyranny of the moment.” 

“If you are forced to make decisions in the ‘tyranny of the moment,’ you frequently make very bad decisions,” said Reeves. “There are a lot of graphic organizers in the program that are referred to as mental maps or mental constructs. The one about the theory of change is that every time there seems to be a change-necessitated, step back from the ‘tyranny of the moment,’ do some research, get some information, and then decide what your options are. There’s a very systematic approach to formulating an anticipated change, not waiting for the change to bite you in the back, as it were.”

About halfway through, each investigator will go through 20 pages of individual assessments that will yield a bar graph to see what’s lacking, help formulate a goal and remedy the situation.

“That’s a giant leap,” said Reeves. “It’s not pretty to see what you don’t have, but it is edifying to see what you do have. By this time, most are high in motivation and persistence. By the time they get to that lesson, they’re beginning to feel that they can do this, that we can do this together.”

Pam Munson (not her real name) heard about the Getting Ahead program from her church. A widow living on social security and experiencing health issues, Munson is struggling to keep her house while living on a limited income. She said she learned a lot about finances “and how to manage your money so it goes further, so you’re not broke at the end of the month,” she said.

Munson added, “I made a lot of new friends and to hear their stories and how they manage,” helped build a support system for her. “I enjoyed it, and I miss it.”

Munson said she met a lot of nice people and that the facilitators “were great. If you had any questions and weren’t sure, they answered it.” 

The Getting Ahead program is already establishing local connections in the community, linking with a mentor group On Common Ground in Attleboro, and forming a partnership with the YMCA in Attleboro to enable all the investigators and their children to become members on a sliding scale, and to participate in the YMCA programs; “I cannot underestimate the importance that has played in just having that physical stimulation in swimming, working out or meeting other people. I think that sometimes we overlook how important it is to move our bodies to help move our emotions and thought processes,” said Reeves.

This initial 16-week Getting Ahead program ran solely on funds raised by St. Vincent de Paul, but this year Mary Dwyer, in her first year as president of the St. Vincent de Paul Attleboro District Council, applied for a grant from the National Office of SVdP, which had received an anonymous $300,000 grant to disburse for special Vincentian projects to help the poor and marginalized. 

Dwyer stated the group received a $5,000 grant to continue to fund the Getting Ahead program to further the SVdP systemic change agenda. Because of the grant, there will be another Getting Ahead program either this fall or early winter, said Dwyer.

Though they had applied for the grant last year, they were denied, but this year Dwyer suspects that it was because of the success of the program that allowed them to receive the grant: “This is my guess, we were not told — we’re in the midst of a successful program that is ongoing right now, which had not yet begun at the time of our prior submission. They clearly want to see this money be put to good use; they don’t want it going to try for something that’s never going to happen, or that’s never going to be successful. I think the fact that we’ve demonstrated some success must have helped,” said Dwyer.

Reeves stated that the Getting Ahead program is a group effort, and that along with her, Frechette, and Kathy Jaaskelainen, a fellow Getting Ahead facilitator, the recognition of the program by the awarding of the grant by the National Office of St. Vincent de Paul is a sign of good things to come. 

“Each person comes to this program with different strengths and different needs, and they leave with very different goals,” said Reeves. “What is delightful for me to see is the extent to which each person who came in bordering on somewhat hopelessness has developed hope. We talk about it being a hand-up, not a handout.” 

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