Having a support system can be invaluable to anyone, but especially to individuals in need. Newton non-profit organization Peace Connections tries to provide just that through Circles of Hope, a service that builds up those who are struggling and gives them the tools to thrive in society.

"We work with low-income families to help them gain financial stability and to help them gain healthy relationships in the community," said Director of Peace Connections Jennifer Rose. "There's lots of financial programs out there, but for a lot of families who are struggling, the finances are just one part of it. They might be isolated, they might be struggling with relationships. There's lots of other pieces...so the Circle community actually tries to help them increase all their resources, not just the financial part."

As Peace Connections relies on donations and grant funding, Circles of Hope does not routinely give monetary assistance (though there are some exceptions in the form of stipends for educational materials, etc.), so the support and encouragement of the community volunteers is central to the program's mission.

Rose noted there are nearly 50 individuals currently volunteering with Circles of Hope and they all help participants toward the goal of successfully sustaining their own families over the course of the 18-month program, providing support, teaching useful budgeting skills, identifying future goals and more.

Goal-setting is a big part of the process, according to volunteer James Wenger. Wenger has volunteered as an ally with Circles of Hope for over five years and said sometimes the participants will be so focused on the present they are not thinking about that prolonged success the program strives for — something the allies help to reiterate.

"Many times people who are living in poverty are just surviving; they're just looking at 'what are we gonna do next week' and they lose sight of longer term goals that they'd like to accomplish," Wenger said. "Part of what the class does is help the persons work through thinking about what their goals are in life, what they'd like to achieve over the month into a year."

For the work Circles of Hope does, it was recognized as the Station of the Year at the recent Harvey County RSVP (Retired and Senior Volunteer Program) Awards banquet, an award recognizing the support and generosity offered towards the efforts of RSVP.

Volunteer work done by Circles of Hope has not only impacted the Harvey County community, but since the group was formed in 2009 it has encouraged the formation of similar organizations across the state. Wenger noted that his son has also gotten involved with a Circles of Hope group out of Hutchinson.

Serving as a pastor before retiring with his wife to Hesston in 2010, Wenger is no stranger to helping those in need. After taking some time deciding where he would volunteer his new free time, he said he was ultimately drawn to Circles of Hope because of its broad impact and the wide cross-section of the community engaged in the group's ultimate goal — as well as the overall approach and how it differed from the one-time donations he was accustomed to in his previous work.

"It felt like you gave something, but the question was are you really helping the person to improve their life situation, so I think what I really liked about Circles of Hope was that it was a sort of systemic approach," Wenger said, "helping people in a lot of different areas in their life, and also realizing that all of us have struggles in our lives."

Rose said she also enjoys seeing the community come together through Circles of Hope's work, something that is especially visible in the weekly dinner meetings put on by the group. From the children to the senior volunteers, she noted it is great to see that interaction and formation of the support system for participating families.

Children were Rose's entry point into Circles of Hope, as she started working in child care for the group back in 2012 before becoming director three years ago. Pointing to a higher power leading Rose to that position (one of a few internship opportunities available to her), she said the impression and impact she saw through her work with kids shaped her path back to Circles of Hope.

"That really stuck with me early on in my social work career, too, that we have a lot of influence on the people and the lives that we touch, especially young ones," Rose said.

Building up a community of support, Rose has been thrilled to see participants gain confidence over the course of the program and share those accomplishments with the entire group. Circles of Hope is always looking to grow, too. While Rose is aware that short-term volunteer opportunities may be more en vogue, she encourages those who want to help to consider being part of something bigger.

"I would encourage people to maybe even push yourself beyond some of your own limits and maybe step out of your comfort zone," Rose said.

For more information and to get involved with the program, visit www.peaceconnectison.org/Circles-of-Hope.html or call 284-0000.