For Austin Regier, executive director of STEPMC, the path out of poverty — which his organization is built to help people with — is not one of isolation.
It takes a village, and that is what STEPMC is trying to create throughout McPherson County.
"STEPMC really is me trying to form a community around the people in our program, foster connections and kind of create pathways of opportunity and success for people," Regier said. "We're really trying to provide some longer-term solutions to poverty and we really think that building community and building relationships is a key component to that."
Currently, STEPMC (connected with the Circles USA movement) is working to expand its mission to end poverty in McPherson County into Moundridge, which is a rebirth of sorts, according to Regier.
Back in 2011, STEPMC hosted a Getting Ahead class in Moundridge (which is phase I of the program). Once the initial five families completed the program, though, they were asked to come to McPherson as there was not enough staff support in Moundridge to continue with the STEPMC program, which eventually fizzled out.
Regier noted in 2018 a couple of Moundridge residents showed an interest in bringing STEPMC back, which found its way into part of the community assessment completed in spring 2019. In the fall of 2019, STEPMC put together an ad hoc committee to explore expansion into Moundridge, with feedback overwhelmingly supporting those efforts.
"I really feel like we did our due diligence in ensuring this was something the Moundridge community wanted and it'll also really help us have support in the community since it was a community-driven process," Regier said.
Originating in 2010, STEPMC now has locations in McPherson and Lindsborg, with the goal to establish communities of support to help those in need get through poverty and into prosperity. Families and individuals enroll in STEPMC training to build financial, emotional and social resources as well as an economic stability plan that sets goals unique to their own needs and dreams.
The only criteria to qualify for assistance through STEPMC is that individuals or families are 200% under the federal poverty level. Those individuals or families ("team leaders") then work with team partners on building up those resources to get out of poverty, taking a very unique approach through that social partnership in the eyes of Regier.
"I think that STEPMC just does things a little bit differently and really focuses on the strengths that everyone has, that everyone brings to the the table, which I think is kind of this beautiful way of doing things — to really value all humans regardless of what situation we're in," Regier said. "I think that a lot of people, not just people in poverty, can benefit from that message. I think it's really a unifying message and one that brings people together."
At this moment, there are 40 people in poverty served through the STEPMC program. In Moundridge, Regier hopes to get 10 to 15 families involved in the initial Getting Ahead class.
On top of those 40 served by the program, there are 240 more volunteers who make up STEPMC and help push the organization's mission forward. From child care at those weekly meetings to providing meals to forming that community of support, volunteers help make STEPMC function.
For paid personnel, STEPMC is currently seeking a coach and youth coordinator in Moundridge, but those partnerships that are key to the mission are already being formed. While the organization has not set a regular day or time for its weekly meetings in Moundridge, it already has a location for those meetings at First Mennonite Church of Christian, which will also be home to the STEPMC offices. Moundridge Ministerial Alliance has also offered its support of the program, which is critical for STEPMC as it currently receives no state or federal funding.
"We're dependent on local businesses and local individuals to help support our work and have had a lot of success being supported that way. Our goal is to come alongside existing organizations in the community and be an additional support for people who are struggling," Regier said.
Regier noted STEPMC is intentional about building up that network — mirroring the focus on social resources that is a key part of the program. And Regier has seen that work in multiple cases, whether it's a talented single mother of four children who has found herself in a tough situation or a single father of three getting back on his feet after a difficult divorce.
Those individual success stories are very telling and part of the reason Regier is looking forward to expanding into Moundridge.
"I think there's just a lot of excitement when you see people come through a program who have no hope and start to build relationships through our program, and start to realize that, yeah, there are ways you can succeed.That's what excites me the most ... is seeing people like him and this other lady who are just so talented, so kind and so hard-working, and to see them succeed and find ways to get ahead," Regier said. "Going to Moundridge, we're just really excited to enter into a community that has a lot of pride about caring for people and about building community. I think I'm really excited to provide another avenue, especially for people who are struggling, to gain some hope, but also an avenue for people who aren't struggling — people who are middle class or living in wealth — to find ways that they can engage with Circles that they don't normally engage in with people that they wouldn't normally engage. I think that's one of the beautiful things about this program is the unifying aspect."