By COLLEEN MCCARTHY
Twelve local women took an important step toward improving their lives and the lives of their families Tuesday night as the inaugural “Getting Ahead in a Just Getting By World” class graduated at First United Methodist Church.
The class is part of the new Starkville Bridges Out of Poverty program, which began earlier this year as a community-wide effort to battle the issue of poverty — and the stigmas and misconceptions surrounding it — from every level of society. The class is tailored to those living in poverty to help them learn the skills necessary to become financially stable.
The group met 15 times for two-and-a-half hour sessions. The class was facilitated by three middle class members —Robbie Ward, Nancy Walsh and Pinks Dudley — who each said they learned as much, if not more, from the women.
“I really thought I had the perspective and that I understood what (poverty) was about. And I did to an extent, but it was really just the tip of the iceberg,” Walsh said. “I have gained so much more from this class than I put it in. These are wonderful women. They all work hard and they care about their families and one of the things we learned was that we all have problems. Some of the problems they have are the same as the ones we have in the middle class, but then some of the problems are so widely divergent. We’ve learned from each other and these are really special people.”
Bridges Out of Poverty is a program created by Phil Devol, Ruby Paine and Terie Dreussi in an effort to reduce, prevent and eradicate poverty by creating a common language and understanding amongst people of different socioeconomic statues. The program is used by communities all over the country.
Lynn Phillips-Gaines, a local financial advisor, brought the Bridges program to Starkville earlier this year. Normally, a Bridges program takes about two years to develop and complete its first Getting Ahead class, but Phillips-Gaines got it done in less than six months after the very first informational meeting.
“I feel like I have just birthed a baby, you know? I could not be more proud of these 12 women, the three facilitators and all the work they did,” Phillips-Gaines said. “The facilitators really put in a lot of hours. When they come talk to me, they tell me ‘Wow, I’m learning even more than they did.’ And these women are can-do women. They are hungry for the information.”
Graduate Shelitha Spearman is a Hurricane Katrina survivor who moved to Starkville a few years ago from Louisiana. She said what she learned over the last few months has changed her life.
“I’ve learned a whole lot. This class has helped everybody. I think everybody should take this class,” she said. “When you find out about what they call the ‘hidden rule,’ you learn a lot because I didn’t know about all the people and organizations that are here to help.”
While the class has an certainly has an emphasis on financial education, it also teaches the importance of spiritual and emotional well-being. Spearman said she learned not just about the value of saving her money, but her own value as well.
“You’re number one. But you have to watch how you spend money. Saving is a big step,” she said. “If you do not need it, don’t buy it. If you see it and you want it, you really have to humble yourself to where you can say ‘I don’t need that.’ There’s something else I can do with that $5 — I could save for college, I could save for a car, on my own.”
In just a few short weeks, she said she has set goals for herself and watched herself achieve them. Now she has another goal in mind: owning a home.
“Some of them have already come so far in improving their lives. They have jobs that didn’t have, made goals, taken steps,” Walsh said.
Phillips-Gaines said she hopes to have another Getting Ahead class started up in a few months.
“After just three or four classes, each of the ladies got in touch with me and said they each knew three or four people who wanted to be in the next class,” she said.
Starkville Bridges Out of Poverty already has the funding for the next Getting Ahead class, but it still needs class facilitators who have the time and interest to help run the classes.
Bridges Out of Poverty will continue to work with those who graduate from the Getting Ahead class providing support and continuing education through another part of the program called Circles Out of Poverty. Graduates partner with members of the middle class who have completed Bridges training to assist with their plan to help them transition from poverty to the middle class.
“There was a moment for one of these ladies where she realized what she was going to have to do to make the changes in her life and just realizing that she was worth it, that there was hope and that were things that she could do,” Phillips-Gaines said.
For more information about Starkville Bridges Out of Poverty, visit http://www.StarkvilleBridges.com .
“I’m glad that I can tell other people that are needing help that don’t know where to go about this class. It would be a good first place for them to start,” Spearman said. “It was a wonderful experience. There are a lot of people out there who are willing to help, you just have to know where to go.”