Six area residents have become the first graduates of a program aimed at helping people analyze the impacts of poverty on their lives and develop strategies to build their resources for more prosperous lives and to improve our community.
The six – Jamestown residents Verna Dickinson, Ashley Martin, Raymond L. Pryce, and Joseph Tucker; Dawn Jennings of Mayville; and Marangelly Perez, Fredonia – were honored during a ceremony held at Northwest Arena in Jamestown. They were recognized as the first local graduates of the “Getting Ahead in a Just-Gettin’-By World” curriculum, a 16-week workshop series that supports people with low incomes to build resources and achieve goals on the path to stability.
Getting Ahead participants are called investigators. The course calls on them to explore how poverty affects them, then identify and develop resources that will enable them to get ahead in their lives. The local workshop is called Invest U because, by participating in the curriculum, investigators were investing in a better future for themselves and their families.
Their efforts also will improve their communities. This is because, as part of their coursework, investigators examined how community institutions measure in areas such as the economy, housing, health care, employment, education, and banking. Those stark assessments revealed where our community did not perform well, providing an opportunity for local leaders to address the gaps.
Terri Johnson, The Resource Center’s Director of Employment and Community-Based Services, was one of the people who helped bring the Getting Ahead curriculum to Chautauqua County. Johnson, who also served as a Getting Ahead Facilitator, welcomed people to the graduation ceremony and shared a bit about the hard work the graduates put in.
“Each of the investigators have gone through a step-by-step discovery of themselves, how they got where they are and what it takes to build the life they want,” she said. “They each have also investigated their own world and have identified societal barriers that could be keeping them in poverty. They have investigated the realities of conditions in their community and its impact, the hidden rules of the economic classes, how to build resources and make connections, and ways to deal with change and create stability in their lives. They have learned about debt-to-income ratios, building social capital, established smart goals, and so much more.”
The United Way of Southern Chautauqua County provided a grant that made it possible for Getting Ahead to be offered locally. The United Way’s Executive Director, Amy Rohler, was the keynote speaker at the graduation. She praised the graduates’ commitment to the program and acknowledged that community institutions and traditions can keep people mired in poverty.
“You have confronted the cold, hard reality of not only your own, personal situation but of this community, too,” Rohler said. “There’s a reality to why people are in poverty and what systems exist that keep them there, and it’s messy and it’s hard and it’s not always pretty. But I suspect that in spite of that investigation, you emerged out of this experience with a gritty faith in the possibility of what you can do and what this community cam accomplish.”
Johnson, Rohler and Assemblyman Andy Goodell noted that local leaders decided to bring the Getting Ahead program to Jamestown after hearing a firsthand account of the program’s effectiveness during a 2019 Assembly hearing in Buffalo that addressed poverty. One of the speakers at that hearing discussed the positive impacts the Getting Ahead program had on his life and, later, on his home community of Watertown as a result of his community involvement. After hearing the man’s testimony, Rohler and Johnson were determined to bring Getting Ahead to Chautauqua County.
Goodell cited this unexpected positive outcome of that Assembly hearing on his remarks to graduates.
“So often, life gives you opportunities that you weren’t expecting; information that you weren’t expecting; or an ability to help somebody else or move yourself ahead, that you may not be expecting,” he said. “As you move forward, as you get ahead in life, keep your eyes and ears open. Listen for opportunities to improve yourself and move forward. And know that you are on the right path today, and we are so proud of what you’ve accomplished.”
Jacqueline Phelps, Deputy District Director for Congressman Tom Reed, also had words for the graduates.
“Each and every one of us has talents. Each and every one of us can be amazing. And as each and every one of us does that, and allows ourselves to be amazing, we give back to our community,” Phelps said. “God bless you for the work that you’ve done. Thank you for your commitment. Congratulations on the impact that you’re going to make on our community and for graduating.”
Jamestown Mayor Eddie Sundquist called the work they’ve done invaluable. “These folks are trailblazers. They’re the first ones in our community to not only graduate from this program, but these are the ones that you are going to see making big changes here in the community.”
Randall Holcomb, who works in Senator George Borrello’s Jamestown office, passed along the senator’s congratulation s to the graduates. Holcomb, noting that the Getting Ahead curriculum is used in five countries and has seen 80,000 people successfully complete the program, told the six local graduates, “We are the lucky county to welcome all of you to that group.”
Most of the graduates also spoke. “In the Getting Ahead class, we learned to build relationships that help us succeed and recognize that money is not the only resource that keeps people stuck in poverty,” Jennings said. Reflecting on what she has had to do in order to survive, Jennings said that by participating in the Getting Ahead curriculum, “Today I can say I’m no longer a survivor, but a warrior.”
She added that the graduates are ready to use their experience and education to improve the community.
“The investigating class of 2021 are all workers,” she said. “We also have a personal experience to know the impact of poverty on our community. We also have ideas that can change the impact of poverty in Chautauqua County. Our research is phenomenal.”
Pryce shared about some of his personal struggles and relayed how his life’s journey led him to pursue his education to become a teacher. Addressing his Invest U classmates, Pryce said, “This journey with you all has made me realize that there’s so many other things that we can do to build up our community.”
Perez noted that she grew up in poverty and said she believes she and her classmates will use what they learned in Invest U to improve their own lives and the lives of others.
“I’m hoping that from these classes people realize how important being educated in the knowledge that are as simple as, `Don’t buy into poverty’ can help. And it definitely helped me,” she said.
Tucker said that since he has children and grandchildren, he’s invested in community’s future. He said he already is active in the community and believes that if area residents work together, issues such as poverty, food insecurity and education can be improved.
Addressing the audience as he stood with his fellow graduates, Tucker said, “I am proud to be here, and I’m proud that all you guys are here to share with all of us.”
Martin said she also grew up in poverty and while a teen-ager promised herself she wouldn’t stay in poverty. She tried a couple of career paths that didn’t pan out. The birth of her daughter caused Martin to focus on improving her life for her daughter’s sake.
“I promised that, no matter what it took, no matter how long it took, no matter how I had to do it, no matter how many tears I had to shed or how many times I needed to scream into a pillow, no matter how many toxic relationships I had to let go of, that she was my number one,” Martin said.
Despite that commitment, she encountered a number of challenges as a single parent. Martin said she learned from the Getting Ahead class that the local community is rich in resources, but not everyone knows about them. She said spreading the word about those resources is an important step in helping people in poverty overcome barriers.
“Education is power,” she said.
Martin plans to return to college to study human resources and psychology in order to work with people in poverty and assist them in improving their lives. “I want to show people that if I can do it, you can do it,” she said.
Johnson noted that one of the goals of Getting Ahead is to make community leaders recognize the program’s benefits and appreciate the work the graduates have put in. Toward that end John Felton, the Chief Executive Officer of the Southern Chautauqua Federal Credit Union, told the graduates that while some lenders won’t loan money to people with a low credit score or poor debt ratio, that his office will provide them with a personal banker to try to help them financially. He added that a low credit score reflects decisions people have made in the past, but that a credit report doesn’t take into account a person’s character.
Favorably impressed by the graduates, Felton said, “This is a cool group of people. This is an amazing group of people.”
In addition to Johnson, two other Resource Center employees – Beth Jermain, Support Option Administrator, and CodyAnne Chambers, Employment Facilitator – served as Getting Ahead Facilitators for the inaugural class. Both had praise for the graduates.
“I can’t remember ever being so impressed by a group of people before,” said Jermain. She added that the graduates will continue to meet regularly to support one another.
Chambers, who facilitates curricula for various populations, was overwhelmed by what the six graduates accomplished.
“These folks have made the most significant changes that I’ve ever seen in any facilitated class,” Chambers said. “To say that we taught you anything is so not true. You all took the lead and you taught yourselves.”
Wrapping up the event, she told the graduates what others in the room likely were thinking:
“I can’t wait to see what happens in each of your futures.”
Organizers plan to hold the next Getting Ahead class in the fall. For more information, contact Jermain at 483-2344.