St. Vincent de Paul program helps working poor to plan for future

Getting Ahead Workshop gives participants support, ideas to escape poverty

GREEN BAY — Sarah Harrison, 24, is a single mom with two young boys and another on the way. While her circumstances present challenges to escaping poverty, Harrison has a plan, thanks to a program sponsored by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SVDP).

Harrison is one of 10 people who recently completed an 18-week workshop called “Getting Ahead.” The group, which holds its graduation ceremony on Dec. 5, is the second to complete the program, according to coordinators Pat Kolarik and Claire Schiefelbein, both members of St. Matthew Parish in Allouez.

Sarah Harrison, left, and Michelle Miller recently completed an 18-week workshop called Getting Ahead, offered by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. The workshop seeks to help people in poverty find ways to plan for their future. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

Getting Ahead participants explore how poverty impacts individuals and communities, and they learn new ways to take control of their lives. The “kitchen-table style” educational workshop brings participants (called investigators because they “investigate” their own lives and determine what they want to do improve it) together with mentors and facilitators. While Green Bay’s program has only been around for one year, Getting Ahead exists in 45 states and five other countries, according to the coordinators.

“This class shows you the different ways that you can make it without relying on assistance,” Harrison said in an interview with The Compass. “It’s just that you’ve got to have the motivation and ambition to actually do it.”

The workshop is free of charge to participants. They receive a workbook and supplies, a meal before each session, and a $25 stipend in the form of a Kwik Trip or Walmart gift card.

Michelle Miller, 44, also completed the workshop. A Head Start teacher in Oneida, Miller said she is unemployed in summers and needed better control of her finances.

“They talk about your finances, how to get ahead and try to kind of break that barrier that we keep getting stuck in, that rut,” said Miller. “It’s something that you need to be committed to every Wednesday night.”

Miller said the discussions about the growing problem of poverty were helpful.

“We made charts like where we are financially and where we would like to be,” she said. “We were taught about marking down what we owe, working out a plan and setting goals.”

Eileen Gossen, a financial coach with Newcap of Green Bay, also addressed the group. “That was very helpful because it made me look at my biggest problem: my credit cards,” added Miller. “She gave us ideas on how to change that.”

The biggest impact Getting Ahead had on Harrison was helping her realize her potential.

“Coming to this class actually made me realize what I wanted to do in life. I’ve been postponing it for so long because I just wasn’t sure,” she said. “It was a little hard because my situation, the fact that I’m still a single parent at such a young age, I felt like I didn’t have that opportunity.”

Harrison said the discussions with her mentor, with facilitators and fellow investigators gave her the support and encouragement to take steps.

“Well, I am going back to school. I’m going to start school for law enforcement and psychology,” she said. “I want to create a program for our youth, more like a halfway house for the children coming out of the system or coming out of juvenile detention. Instead of putting them out on the street when they turn 18, it’s kind of like giving them an option and coming to this place and learning the different things that you learn in this class so you can take that knowledge out there, before you even get into that poverty stage, you know how to get out of it.”

She plans to complete her GED and then enroll at NWTC.

Miller also has new plans for her future.

“I’m really hoping to finish my master’s degree. I have seven classes to go for business management,” she said. “I really do want to work with kids because my biggest fear is my children getting caught up with all of the different drugs and opiods out there.”

Miller said she sees the effects of addiction during her work at Head Start in Oneida. “So many of my parents are already in jail and so many of my students were born crack addicts,” she said. “Within the tribe right now, we’ve been having like one or two deaths a month from opioids. So I really would love to be a part of that, to help prevent that, for all of the young children.”

Miller and Harrison both plan to stay involved in some way with Getting Ahead.

“It’s like church. You can always go back to them for support when you’re feeling lost and need a little encouragement,” said Harrison. “I’m pretty sure that I will be coming back to the class, helping out or speaking with facilitators or mentors. It gives you that sense of comfort that, I know it’s going to be hard, but we have that support to fall back on.”

The Getting Ahead coordinators, both Vincentians, say the program is making an impact on the community.

“We really want people to see that people are not poverty, they are individuals who happen to be impacted by poverty,” said Kolarik.

“Every person is different, every person has their own story,” said Schiefelbein. “If you could see them walk in the door, meeting their mentor for the first time … and by the fourth week, you really start to see them create something, forming bonds.

“It’s rigorous curriculum, but boy they grasp it,” added Kolarik. “As wonderful as graduation is, it’s the hardest part of this whole program because they become family.”

Editor’s note: The next Getting Ahead Workshop begins Jan. 17, 2018. To learn more about the program or about serving as a program mentor, contact Kolarik or Schiefelbein at (920) 617-5475; [email protected].