London leans into in­no­va­tive anti-poverty ef­fort

The Observer (Sarnia) - - NEWS - ME­GAN STACEY

Karen Lynch never imag­ined she’d go to col­lege. But she says a group de­signed to lift peo­ple out of poverty gave her the con­fi­dence she needed to hit the books.

It’s part of an in­no­va­tive ap­proach to stop gen­er­a­tional poverty in its tracks, and ad­dress other flash­points, like so­cial as­sis­tance — rates in London are high, and climb­ing — and find­ing jobs.

Bridges Out of Poverty saves thou­sands of dol­lars a month in wel­fare and dis­abil­ity pay­ments and gives Lon­don­ers a push to fin­ish high school and col­lege.

It started in Lambton County, but London now has the largest Bridges and “Cir­cles” pro­gram in Canada. Four cir­cles of as many as 20 peo­ple con­nect vol­un­teer men­tors with peo­ple in need.

“I was a sin­gle mom with no real sup­port sys­tem. I had kind of given up on try­ing. I tried hand­ing out re­sumes, but it was just too much and I gave up,” Lynch said. What can a weekly meet­ing do? Lynch, 35, says it comes down to sup­port. The men­tors — dubbed “al­lies” — are prob­lem-solvers, cheer­lead­ers, friends.

“I did not grow up un­der the best cir­cum­stances and I never re­ally had any real self-worth, be­cause I was told that I had none,” Lynch said. “To have peo­ple come around . . . and say, ‘Yes, you are worth it,’ . . . is life-chang­ing.”

She’s train­ing to be­come a parts tech­ni­cian at Fan­shawe Col­lege, through a free, one-year preap­pren­tice pro­gram.

The group is all about break­ing down bar­ri­ers and build­ing a net­work with guest speak­ers, work­shops, ser­vices, maybe a meal.

And in a city where peo­ple stay on so­cial as­sis­tance nearly twice as long as they used to, labour mar­ket par­tic­i­pa­tion lags neigh­bour­ing mid-size cities, drug ad­dic­tion is at cri­sis lev­els and shel­ters reg­u­larly op­er­ate over ca­pac­ity, this dif­fer­ent ap­proach seems to work.

Peo­ple en­ter­ing the pro­gram have been on so­cial as­sis­tance for four years. Close to half of those who grad­u­ate have a sta­ble job that pays enough to sur­vive. An­other 14 per cent are em­ployed and get­ting “topped up” by On­tario Works ben­e­fits. Oth­ers are in school or some other kind of in­ten­sive pro­gram — like ad­dic­tions treat­ment — and the rest de­pend on dis­abil­ity pay­ments or stopped par­tic­i­pat­ing.

The pay­cheques help peo­ple come off so­cial as­sis­tance. By 2019, the an­nual sav­ings to On­tario Works from em­ploy­ment in­come and from those leav­ing the sys­tem is ex­pected to reach $430,000.

But it’s the per­sonal con­nec­tion that stands out for par­tic­i­pants and peo­ple mon­i­tor­ing the pro­gram.

“The big­gest thing is that it cre­ates a sense of com­mu­nity,” said Kevin Dick­ins, who over­sees so­cial as­sis­tance at city hall. “When you’re in a room, a very close and safe en­vi­ron­ment with peo­ple who have found suc­cess, it gives you hope.”

He thinks Bridges Out of Poverty works well in London be­cause it builds sup­port net­works, then mod­els suc­cess.

“It’s so en­cour­ag­ing when you see a bunch of peo­ple . . . you’ve started with that are now do­ing bet­ter,” said Mar­garet Stout, a mom of three who joined the pro­gram in 2017.

“I was kind of lost and not sure which path to take,” she said. Her group has since be­come “al­most like a fam­ily.”

When her daugh­ter was di­ag­nosed with Type 1 di­a­betes, the cir­cle wrapped her with sup­port.

She’s had mem­bers of­fer to hang out with her girls while she takes care of school­work for her Fan­shawe pro­gram. When she com­pletes a foun­da­tional pro­gram, she hopes to get into so­cial work.

“The re­la­tion­ships I’ve made through Cir­cles (are) pretty amaz­ing,” she said. “The en­cour­age­ment — you could be hav­ing the worst day, and you don’t re­ally want to go, but then when you go, it’s just so over­whelm­ing be­cause ev­ery­one is so sup­port­ive.” mstacey@post­media.com twit­ter.com/Me­ganatLFPress

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