27 Sep A community found, a voice gained
When Bobbi Rose stood in front of the woman handing out school backpacks at a First Call for Help giveaway a few years ago, she was tired.
She was tired from a relentless struggle to make ends meet, exhausted by the mercilessness of a life in poverty.
As so often happens when funds persistently run short, life’s problems compound. For Rose, of South Hutchinson, that meant living through a series of one-thing-after-another episodes where the “breaks” taunted just out of reach if they even appeared at all. She wasn’t one to seek help, and on the rare occasions she did – with appeals to all of the usual programs aimed at helping those in need – she was denied.
She just needed some guidance.
“There’s nobody in town that does free budgeting classes,” she told the woman handing out the backpacks.
Rose continued to voice her frustrations, and the woman continued to listen.
And then the woman pointed her to a program unlike others that Rose had encountered: Circles of Hope.
“She gave me information for Circles and was like ‘Go. Just have dinner once and see what they’re about,’ ” Rose recalled.
“Circles is hard to describe, I think, until you actually go through it.”
SURVIVING SURVIVAL MODE
For Rose and her husband, Theron, poverty was what they knew. Wed for 16 years, the couple earned $450 a month between the two of them during their first year of marriage.
“His parents weren’t raised in poverty, but they lived in poverty. From my side of the family, it’s been generation upon generation of living in poverty,” she said.
For every deficit poverty creates – lack of money, education, health coverage, social and emotional support – a corresponding surplus of needs springs forth demanding fulfillment – a need for food, shelter, and clothing; skills to secure a job that pays; money to pay for medical treatment; a person to rely on for sound advice or a helping hand.
The Roses felt that daily grind of lack and need, making the notion of something better impossible to fathom. And helping obscure those dreams of a better life was another frequent link in the poverty cycle: childhood trauma.
“So I’m a person that’s beat the statistics,” Rose said.
The meter began running on those statistics from the start of Rose’s life in Burlington, Colorado. Born to a mother who married at 13 to escape a “horrific” life of abuse at home, Rose entered the world at seven months after a car accident sent her mother into premature labor. She spent 28 days in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, went home for three weeks, then returned to the hospital until she was nearly 8 months old while the doctors tried to determine why she would suddenly stop breathing.
“I was diagnosed with sleep apnea,” she said.
The odds continued to thwart Rose when she entered school. By the time the adults in her life began to understand why she struggled with reading, she was in fourth grade hearing only about 15 percent of the world around her.
“So I’m a person that’s beat the statistics.”
Two ear surgeries later the sound finally turned on, but the academics remained staticky. Her fourth-grade reading level trailed her to high school, leading her mother to make a decision.
“She didn’t see me graduating, so she withdrew me from school and I took my GED,” Rose said. “So for many years, I didn’t see a path forward for me. I worked three jobs, moved out on my own, ended up in my own bad relationship, and pregnant at 18.”
Those incidents of Rose’s youth are known as Adverse Childhood Experiences, a term derived from the landmark mid-1990s CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. One of the largest investigations of its kind conducted from 1995 to ’97 involving more than 17,000 subjects, the study looked at the effects of childhood abuse and neglect on later mental and physical health. The research behind the study and its conclusions on toxic stress catalyzed the growing trauma-informed movement spreading throughout schools and organizations across the United States, including in Reno County school districts.
The study measured the 10 most indicated types of childhood trauma, ranging from various kinds of abuse and neglect to environmental factors relating to the health, behaviors, and experiences of family members. Though not specifically measured, other types of experiences – such as homelessness, surviving an illness or accident, and witnessing abuse – are also considered trauma that tends to elevate levels of toxic stress.
“Off the ACEs score, if you know anything about it, eight out of 10,” Rose said, referring to her total on the ACE questionnaire, a tool that assesses the level of trauma an individual may have endured in his or her childhood. Each affirmative answer to the 10-question survey receives one point. Thus, the higher the score, the higher the trauma and the higher the likelihood those traumas experienced in youth will significantly impact one’s adult life.
For the Roses, adult life included limited education and work skills, which meant relying on low-wage jobs to support a household, children, and other life expenses, such as the series of physically severe and financially debilitating health problems that visited the family.
Any dreams of a better future were going nowhere fast.
“We hit a point where we just couldn’t grow anymore. No matter what we tried, we just weren’t making progress,” Rose said.
The Roses reached a common impasse for families living in poverty. The intense stresses and immediate demands of such circumstances can paralyze thoughts and actions.
“When you’re caught up in the cycle of economic struggle, you tend to be now-focused because you’re in survival mode, so whatever is the most pressing thing at the moment gets all the attention, but that perpetuates people’s staying stuck where they’re at,” said Jim Unruh, Circles of Hope Coach, relationship-builder, and trainer.
Pair those stagnating circumstances with a lack of supportive relationships and a family can be left feeling socially isolated.
“Stress is feeling overwhelmed and powerless and then the toxic aspect of that stress is then feeling isolated. A lot of families [in poverty] feel isolated from being around stable, caring, connected adults,” Unruh said.
That isolation trait dominates poverty and trauma, the effects of which can create an imprisoning loop.
“You can just connect the dots between somebody who’s grown up with that trauma and then makes decisions that they can’t assess risk effectively, they can’t form healthy relationships, and then you combine that with the social isolation – they’re not seeing other people making healthy choices – and it’s just a recipe. … You can just connect the dots from trauma plus low resources when you’re in a decision-making situation and you make a decision and it leads to poverty, which creates stress …” said Jim’s wife, Heidi Unruh, who coordinates child care for Circles of Hope and helps lead the Poverty Collaborative Task Force, an ecumenical group aimed at helping churches more effectively address poverty.
A key component, then, of Circles’ approach to helping lift people out of poverty and trauma lies in combatting that isolation through quality, stable relationships.
“We’re really promoting that social connection is the transforming power to help families become who they want to be,” Jim said.
Rose points to those newfound relationships as central to her family moving beyond simply surviving to actually aspiring.
On a September day in 2017, Rose pulled up to a nearby farm to pick up her 15-year-old son from a sleepover just in time to witness the ATV he was driving roll on top of him and crush his skull.
Hospitalization, physical therapy, and an ongoing recovery process followed that nightmarish scene along with a mother’s determination that her son would live. The support system Rose developed at Circles, one she never had before, helped her family persevere.
“When my son was in the hospital, we had people,” Rose said. “If that had happened prior to Circles, we know it wouldn’t have been that way. We had people that came and helped take care of our kids while we were at the hospital.”
“I never really thought about it prior to recently how much relationships mean more than any other help that a person can give you.”
Those Circles relationships allowed her and Theron to “maintain our family structure and keep moving forward,” she said. “If we hadn’t had the support system that we had, I’m not sure that we could have made it through that event.”
But Rose was always iffy on relationships. She never really had a best friend, she said.
Part of that leeriness came from poor self-esteem and lack of confidence: “I was raised that everybody’s better than me, so I didn’t have the confidence to go out and meet people and want to even build those relationships.”
Part of it came from an unfamiliarity with healthy relationships and boundaries: “I had never really seen that where somebody’s not trying to take advantage of somebody else.”
With the exposure she gained in Circles to ACEs research, however, came acknowledgement of the way her own childhood trauma influenced her adult life and interactions with others.
“Some of the events that I’ve had happen to me – even though I’d done therapy, I’d only come so far in my healing,” Rose said. “The big piece for me was understanding why things happened the way they did without blaming.”
But she credits the relationship-building skillset – and with that, learning to set boundaries and embrace the power of the word “No” – as the most transformative aspect of her experience in Circles. Knowing a team of people stands behind her cheering her on gives her confidence, she says, to use her voice – and, perchance, to dream.
“Even as a teenager I would dream about what I wanted, and I was always told I wasn’t smart enough … or I wasn’t good enough,” Rose said. “I’m 34 years old and I’m just now figuring out” how to make those dreams come true.
“I never really thought about it prior to recently how much relationships mean more than any other help that a person can give you.”
Trinity United Methodist Church hosts the Hutchinson Circles chapter, an affiliate of the national Circles USA organization. Defined as a relational, community-based, consumer-driven initiative, Circles empowers participants to lead their own ways out of poverty. These Circle Leaders, as they are called, decide what help they most need to better their circumstances, be it financial training, advanced education, social and emotional support, or guidance on any of a number of other obstacles that can cage people in poverty.
As a Circle Leader, finally receiving the budgeting help she coveted became another transforming force in Rose’s life, and that help came with the encouragement of her Circle Allies.
Along with attending regular meetings and classes, Circle Leaders can choose to match with at least two Allies. Occupying a space that’s perhaps more formal than simple friendship but not quite as structured as mentorship, these community volunteers serve as sounding boards, teammates and accountability partners for Leaders.
“The real power of Circles is having relational Allies who walk beside families and help them develop a social network, connection, help them stay on task on the individual tasks that they’re working on to move out of poverty,” Jim Unruh said.
Rose needed help formulating a strategy for spending within the family’s limited means while meeting basic survival needs and tackling an enormous mountain of medical debt accumulated through the years from pregnancy and treatment of Rose’s adult-onset cancer and multiple sclerosis. She and her Allies developed a phased long-range plan that met basic needs while controlling spending, knocking down debt – and saving. At one point, before her son’s accident, “we had almost $3,800 in a savings account for the first time in our entire life.”
“Just the fact that we had that much at one point was a big difference for us, though, because we’d never been able to save even $25 from one month to the next,” she said.
Her husband’s recent acquisition of an industrial arts degree also fueled their economic stability; though, the pursuit came with its own set of challenges. Theron obtained the degree in nearly half the expected time, but it meant three years of full-time workdays that began before dawn and ended with night-school sessions that lasted until 9 several days a week. For Bobbi, it meant solitary days managing kids and the homelife.
All of this goal-setting, hard work, discipline and sacrifice make up the journey toward what Circles calls “future story” – that is, what an individual or family dreams for their lives. For some, that might be sipping iced tea on the front porch without the worry of lingering debt; for others, future story might be affording a family vacation.
Having achieved initial goals of securing their first automobile loan and surpassing income’s poverty threshold, the Roses now stand just $8,000 away from their next income goal on the road to a future story that includes first-time home ownership and paying off medical debt.
And on June 21, 2019, the family completed the first leg of that future story journey when the Roses signed the closing documents on their first home.
Future stories can change, of course. The act of achieving one dream can spark a chain reaction that encourages other dreams to form. And practical realities may alter the course of future stories. For these reasons, the Roses continue to mold their visions for the future.
But for Bobbi, Circles and the trauma-informed movement gave her the space to examine a part of her life she had ignored: herself and what she wants.
“I’ve devoted so much time to my family and being a wife and a mother,” she said, “I don’t have a me anymore. And that’s been my big drive in getting involved in different things and trying to figure out what do I want to do. I lost that a long time ago.”
Building those relational connections, learning about childhood trauma, and setting those goals to leave poverty behind ignited a passion in Rose that made her certain of one facet of her future story: returning to school and becoming a Circles Ally.
She knows her experiences give her insight others lack into what motivates people living under economic and emotional stress, and she wants the world to know that those in poverty “are still people.”
She also knows that the voices working to address poverty and trauma resilience must include those who have lived it – and who may still be walking in it.
“If you’re not going to engage the people you’re trying to affect, you’re not going to make lasting” change.
And so she speaks occasionally in front of groups about her experiences; works with the Poverty Collaborative Task Force; engages in community trauma-informed work; and in the summer of 2019, accepted the role of coordinator for the Hutchinson Circles chapter.
She wants to be a change agent – even if the progress comes bit by bit.
“If we do the right things, you may not be able to affect the generation currently in it [trauma], but can we keep reducing it for each generation and maybe two or three generations down the road, you won’t see what you’re seeing now? And I’m OK with being part of that change.”
Wendy Skellenger, communications officer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.