By Cristina Janney

McPherson Sentinel

Rachel Bennett of Newton comes from five generations of poverty.

“The family I lived in, the parents didn’t work, and the kids went to public school,” she said.

Bennett’s mother was a drug addict and an alcoholic and abused her. She was molested by a baby sitter for years.

She was working at a job in Hillsboro when she was diagnosed with cancer.

She had no car, so she moved to Newton so she could receive her chemotherapy treatments. She was scared and sick and she didn’t know any one.

She became connected with the Circles of Hope program in Newton.

Circles is a national anti-poverty initiative, which seeks to end poverty one family at a time.

Bennett told her story to a regional training conference in Newton Wednesday.

Bennett signed up to take a Getting Ahead class.

Getting Ahead helps people in poverty learn about the social and economic rules of class. It also helps participants assess their strengths and weaknesses. These strengths and weakness are not just financial. They include health, emotional, social, mental and spiritual well being.

Denise Rhoades, a Circles facilitator in Newton, said Getting Ahead is like cleaning out a closet. You have to take everything out to see what you have, and sometimes you end up with a bigger mess than when you started. Then participants can become Circle Leaders and are matched with volunteers in the community who become intentional friends and supporters of the families who are in poverty. These volunteer are called Allies.

Rhoades said then the process begins of sorting through what people want in their lives and what aspects they want to get rid of. She said it can be a painful process, but a rewarding one for the individuals and families who participate.

Bennett said she has grown a lot through the program. She is now cancer free and is working a full-time job.

“I feel safe and secure,” she said. “I have friends and people I know I can count on. For me, that’s huge.”

Ed O'Malley, president and CEO of the Kansas Leadership conference, is a member of a group organizing Circles sites in Wichita. He gave the keynote address at the regional training Wednesday.

O'Malley has worked all his life in philanthropy, but was drawn to Circles because he thought the program sought long-term solutions to poverty and not temporary fixes. He said volunteering may help you sleep at night, but it does not necessarily bring meaningful change to the people who you are helping.

“We have to have purpose,” he said. “From now on, we can't do noble things just to do go good things. We have to have purpose.”

Unlike many other charitable agencies, Circles urges participants to drive the change in their own lives.

Rhoades said she encourages participates in her Getting Ahead class to create future stories.

They create two collages. One collage depicts what life is like living in poverty now. The other depicts what they want their lives to be after being in the program for 18 months. “I ask them to think about meeting a friend in Wal-mart or Dillons one or two years for now,” she said. “They ask you what you have been doing. I tell them to create a picture of what they hope their lives will be.”

Time can be a key predictor of success in the program. Getting Ahead graduates can become Circle Leaders. The Circle Leaders and Allies are asked to make 18 months commitments to the program. She said it often takes six to nine months for Circle Leaders to open up to their Allies.

Contact Cristina Janney at or follow her on Twitter @macsentinel.