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By Marc Hopkins
On a Friday evening in spring, Catherine (last name held for privacy) and one of her “allies,” Linda Berger, brewed herbal teas for postpartum mothers inside a two-story home in Lititz, a small town in Lancaster County, Pa. The pair meticulously labeled the brews and discussed the finer points of networking to help Catherine establish her fledging brand as a doula (birthing assistant) paired with the healing techniques of aromatherapy and herbalism.
Their meeting was more than a bonding session where friends catch up and trade ideas for additional income. Catherine, 32, is a wife and mother of three girls – ages 3, 9, and 12. Her family has struggled with poverty for the last 10 years. Berger has chosen to act as an intentional friend to Catherine as she tries to make life better for herself and her family. Catherine hopes their preparation will pay dividends during the upcoming “Beyond the Bump” baby expo, where Berger will help Catherine market her services to expectant mothers.
The six-month relationship didn’t develop by happenstance. Rather, it’s a result of the Atlas Initiative, a program created in 2013 to help impoverished residents in Lancaster County improve their lives.
Atlas is an example of multiple efforts to address poverty in the region under the Community Action Program of Lancaster County (CAP). The nonprofit also oversees domestic violence shelters, Head Start, and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program.
Statewide in Pennsylvania, 1 in 9 households struggles to put food on the table, compared to 1 in 7 nationwide, and nearly 1.7 million people live in poverty, according to Bread for the World Institute. The paradox of Lancaster County is that it’s known for its productive farmsteads owned and run by self-sufficient Amish families, yet hunger and poverty still exist among many residents.
When clients like Catherine come to Atlas, they are immersed in a six-month training program using the textbook “Getting Ahead in a Just-Gettin’-By World” by Philip DeVol. The goal is to inspire analysis on how poverty affects them as individuals and its impact on the community at large. They are also tasked with assessing how their talents can help make them self-sufficient.
The Atlas staff was so impressed with Catherine’s grasp of the material that they picked her to share teaching responsibilities for a subsequent course. “I think one of the main reasons they let me teach is because I was so thorough going through the curriculum on my own,” Catherine said. “I did a lot of the research for the group so they knew they could count on me.”
For Catherine, one of the most meaningful experiences with Atlas has come through the pairing of “leaders,” people looking to get out of poverty, and “allies,” middle- to upper-class individuals such as lawyers, teachers, or retired professionals, who want to help others recast their financial picture.
“The allies help people troubleshoot,” said Michael McKenna, chief operations officer at CAP. “Often, people in poverty are driven by the crisis of the moment, which takes up all the bandwidth. Having a friend walk with you gives you perspective.”
Atlas operates from two locations: Lancaster City, where the poverty rate is 29 percent. The other site is in Lancaster County (Columbia Borough), which has a 19 percent poverty rate. Each time the program meets at either location, participants can always count on a free meal and childcare.
“We know that people in poverty usually struggle with those,” said Brittany Parsons, a coordinator for Atlas. “We realize that when kids are watched and bellies are full we can have honest conversations with adults about how they have been individually affected by poverty and how communities suffer when poverty exists,” she said.
The clients served by Atlas span from millennials to boomers, are mostly African-American and Latino, and are overwhelmingly female. Many are working on their GED.
Atlas helps just under 50 people a year. But there are limits on who is eligible for assistance. For example, people who are newly evicted or suffer from drug addiction aren’t considered good candidates. “Those basic levels of stability need to be in place before we can ask people to make long-term, abstract decisions to get out of poverty,” Parsons said.
This is an exciting time for Catherine and her family. She’s enjoyed some early success in securing a client last year for her doula practice, and hopes the time and money she’s spending on the baby expo will give her the exposure she needs to grow her business.
Her ally, Berger, who works for a local funeral home, has confidence in her ability to succeed. “Today, I show up, and she’s got a checklist for everything that needs to be done for an event that’s one month away,” Berger said. “She’s a hard worker and detail-oriented. She’s got great ideas.”
Beyond the expo, Catherine and her husband, Efrain, 40, are at a crucial point in the fight to change their lives. They’re waiting to find out if they will receive a Habitat for Humanity house. If they are chosen, Efrain is required to put in a number of hours in sweat equity on the home’s construction. If they aren’t selected, he will return to school for architectural technology.
Homeownership or additional job skills would shift this family’s financial outlook. They have been struggling since Efrain, who currently works in sales, lost his job as a graphic designer following a car accident in 2004. Catherine said after the birth of their second daughter, “everything began to tank.” Since then, he’s worked a series of odd jobs to keep things going.
Catherine is hopeful that her business will eventually take off and provide the family with much-needed income.
“I think the one benefit I got from Getting Ahead was motivation,” she said. “I learned to believe in myself more. Going back to school, that was a very big step. And now, starting my own business, that’s a huge step.”
Marc Hopkins is a writer living in Silver Spring, Md.
1 in 9 households in Pennsylvania struggles to put food on the table and nearly 1.7 million people live in poverty.
Catherine is hopeful that her business will eventually take off and provide the family with much-needed income. “I think the one benefit I got from Getting Ahead was motivation,” she said. “I learned to believe in myself more." Photo: Joseph Terranova for Bread for the World.
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