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Circles Program Is Leading SC Residents Out of Poverty | South Carolina News

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By ANGELIA L. DAVIS, Greenville News

GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) — At one time, LeAundrea Robinson could sum up the story of her life situation in three words: “broke, broken and homeless.”

Circles Greenville County helped change the narrative by giving her a support system that helped lift her out of her circumstances.

The mother of four, today, is a homeowner who works full time and has launched nonprofit organizations such as Unity Projects, Inc. and SIMS (She Is My Sista).

Circles Greenville, a chapter of Circles USA, which works to help people move out of poverty, “gave me something that other organizations didn’t,” Robinson said. “I was able to go from surviving to thriving.”

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The same may also be said about the 40 others in Greenville who’ve completed Circles 18-month program.

The process begins with a 12-week training class, during which people accepted to the program learn basic financial literacy and create a plan to achieve their goals.

When they graduate from the 12-week class, they become “Circles leaders.” The leaders are then matched with people from the community that Circles calls allies. Allies are volunteers that receive training to help the leaders fulfill their goals.

“Many of our leaders have started their own business and now employ people in our community,” said Judy Brown, a Circles volunteer and ally. “They are working on college degrees or have graduated college. It has been a wonderful experience to watch our Circles leaders thrive and bring their family out of poverty. Circles leaders improve our local economy and that benefits all of us.”

MEN MOVING FORWARD HELPS ADDICTS

Carson Love, who completed the program last month, plans to use what he’s gained from Circles to move forward with his business partner to open a house for men recovering from addiction. His partner, Supreme Newkirk was unable to participate in Circles because of his work schedule, Love said.

The idea for Men Moving Forward is one the men have had since 2013, Love said. The inspiration stems from their own journey to recovery, he said.

“We’re both recovering addicts and we came up with this platform to open a recovery house for men suffering from the disease of addiction and alcoholism,” Love said. “We want to help these gentlemen get their lives back in order, to first help them to stop using then to help them get back to the basics.”

Love said the project has come to a standstill. They’ve been unable to find a house to rent or buy for the men.

Love, the owner of a transportation service who also works in maintenance at Buncombe Street United Methodist Church (BSUMC), was familiar with Circles. The Circles meetings are held there at BSUMC.

But, Love said, he didn’t know what Circles was about until the late Stella McBee, a Circles coach, encouraged him to complete an application. He’s glad he did.

Through the program, he said he’s learned how to think differently about money. His old way, Love said, “was driving me in the hole.”

“I have not used a credit card in seven months and that’s phenomenal for me because every time I go to Walmart, I use the Walmart card,” Love said. “They helped me change my thinking to use that kind of source only in emergencies and budget from what I get paid biweekly.”

Love plans to pass the information on to his business partner as well as the gentlemen in the planned recovery house.

“If they see me trying to budget and be a good manager of money, they can probably take on that trait as well,” he said. “I really internalized it when I saw it working for me.”

CIRCLES GREENVILLE IS IN ITS 6TH YEAR

Circles Greenville, a partnership between BSUMC and Sunbelt Human Advancement Resources (SHARE), has been at work in the community since 2015.

Robinson and Tori Franklin, 25, were among the inaugural graduates of the program.

Franklin was a new mom and a Greenville Tech student when McBee, who died in August 2020, and Sandra Bullock, former Circles Greenville County coordinator, introduced her to Circles.

At the time, Franklin was still fresh in trying to figure out how to be a single mother and make ends meet.

The program, she said, helped her clarify what she wanted to do in life. It also inspired her status from single mother to “independent mother.”

“I was always someone seen as a statistic,” Franklin said. “I felt like in Circles, I was taken in to be a part of a family, to be with people that helped nurture and helped me to grow as a strong black woman.”

Circles also helped Franklin accomplish the goal of obtaining her two-year degree in marketing from Greenville Tech. Franklin, who recently earned a bachelor’s degree from Berea College in Kentucky, said sometimes when a person is seeking some kind of help, they’re made to feel that the giver is better than you.

Not so with Circles allies, she said.

“Even though the people may have had different skills or assets that we didn’t have, we were able to nurture them as well,” she said. “Not only did we learn from our allies, they learned from us.”

Elizabeth Hicks, a Circles volunteer and ally, said having the opportunity to work with a leader as an “intentional” friend and mentor enriched her life in many ways.

“It challenged me to open my eyes and see the encompassing nature of poverty for an individual, to their spirit, their outlook and their ability to develop,” said Hicks in an email. One of the most rewarding aspects was being able to walk beside her leader and help her overcome hurdles that were problematic, she said.

“It went beyond the things you think about — learning to budget and save, learning new skills to enhance employability or helping her access resources in the community,” she said. “A lot of the hurdles are psychological or emotional. They face issues that, for those of us not in their shoes, consider part of our normal life and learn to negotiate.”

Franklin said everyone in Circles was open and welcoming regardless of the situation. And, she didn’t feel judged.

“I feel like that’s what makes Circles different,” Franklin said.

FORMING A CIRCLE AROUND A PERSON IN POVERTY

Circles USA works, in part, by forming a Circle around the person in poverty.

That person is matched with allies who circle around them, along with a coach and resource team supports, according to Gena Atcher, national membership coordinator for Circles USA.

This lifts them up, offers them many levels of support, and helps them achieve S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound) goals so they will “thrive, not just survive,” Atcher said in an email.

Circles’ goal for an individual or family is to help them reach 200 percent of the federal poverty guideline and get out of poverty.

Circles USA began in Ames, Iowa, as the Move the Mountain Leadership Center, funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation to find long-term solutions for reducing poverty, the program’s website said.

During the 1990s, Move the Mountain developed and researched a community-led support system, and by 2001, it found that the effort was working — families were moving out of poverty for good, the site said.

The term Circles represents the relational approach of getting people off of welfare and into jobs through peer support from middle-income volunteers, the site said.

Circles USA has more than 80 locations in 22 states and parts of Canada, the site said. Circles Greenville was the first South Carolina chapter.

Judy Brown recalls hearing the Rev. Jerry Hill, former BSUMC pastor, talk about the program one Sunday in fall 2014. The concept spoke to her heart, as if God was saying “this is where I want you to be my hands and feet.”

She’s been a volunteer ever since. This past year, she became Carson Love’s Circles ally.

It was a humbling experience to be a part of Love’s journey, she said. “He is so committed to getting a business started that will serve others,” she said.

Brown made the commitment to serve as an ally as “a way to give back for the blessings I’ve been given.”

“Poverty is the root cause of so many problems within our community. Circles has given me an opportunity to better understand the barriers that people in poverty are dealing with on a daily basis,” Brown said.

HELPING FAMILIES BECOME SELF-SUFFICIENT

A Circles ally helps a family become self-sufficient, Brown said.

The leader may need help with budgeting, navigating bureaucracy, housing, learning job skills or just having a friend that supports their journey out of poverty, Brown said. An ally can give the leader a different perspective and provide resources to help as they move forward, she said.

The connections with Circles are among the specialties that impressed Tina Branham. a single mother of five children, who completed the program in June.

“It’s nothing like I’ve ever seen or been involved in before,” she said. “They choose your ally based on personality, based on interest in what you want to do, and it’s a pretty good match. My ally was amazing.”

Branham moved to Greenville with her children, ages three to 15, in 2019. She was homeless and had no transportation of her own.

When McBee connected her to Circles, Branham was “overwhelmed with everything going on in my life,” she said. “It was a mess.”

Through Circles, Branham said, you gain a different outlook on life and managing money from point A to point B to get out of poverty.

“They connect you with credit repair people who are very diligent. They actually sit you down and go over everything,” Branham said. “They look at your bank statements like ‘hey, you’re spending too much money on fast foods. That money could be going toward some of these bills.’”

The “real truths” released are hard to hear, Branham said, but necessary if you want to get out of poverty.

Her hope is to eventually buy a house so her children will have a place to play outdoors. Branham, a doula, is also working to become a certified midwife. She wants to expand her business “Touch of Grace,” to add midwifery services.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Dave says: If you need a cosigner, you're not ready – Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal

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How to improve your credit score in 2021: Easy and effective tips

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If you’ve ever wondered “What is my credit score?” it’s probably time to find out. Having a good credit score can make life a lot more affordable. If you’re about to buy a house or car, for example, the higher your credit score is, the lower your interest rate (and therefore, monthly cost) will probably be.

Your number may also be the deciding factor for whether or not you can get a loan and ultimately determine if you are even able to buy something you want or need.

So, yes, the goal is to have the highest possible credit score you can, but increasing the number doesn’t just happen overnight. There are important steps to take if you want to increase your score, and the sooner you start working on it, the better.

“If you’re trying to increase (your credit score) substantially to accomplish a goal, you’re really going to have to have as much lead time as possible,” said Thomas Nitzsche, director of media and brand at Money Management International, a nonprofit financial counseling and education provider that advises people on how to legally and ethically improve their credit score on their own.

If you have fair credit and you’re trying to improve the number for a house purchase, for instance, you’ll want to start working on it at least a year in advance, he explained to TMRW.

But even though that sounds like a long time away, you can (and should!) start doing things right now to bump that number up. Below, see seven things you should do — and not do — to help improve your credit score:

1. Review your credit report

Review your credit report and look for errors that might be hurting your score. Morsa Images / Getty Images

The first thing you’ll want to do is pull up a copy of your current report so you know where you stand. You can get free reports from all three agencies — TransUnion, Experian, and Equifax — at annualcreditreport.com. Nitzsche said it’s important to take a moment and understand the financial snapshot of where you are today and where you want to be.

You’ll also want to take some time and look for any errors on your report, which could negatively impact your score. “If your name is misspelled, that’s not going to hurt your score,” he explained. “But if you see a late payment or missed payment (that’s in error), or maybe you have an account that should be reporting but isn’t, then that’s a problem and that will impact your score.”

If there is an error, you should dispute it and try to provide as much proof as you can.

One other thing: You can also ask a creditor to remove an issue if it’s been corrected (i.e., if you paid off a collection debt). Nitzsche said it doesn’t hurt to ask and the worst thing they could say is no.

2. Have good financial habits

“The biggest part of your credit score is payment history, so the most critical thing is never missing a due date,” Nitzsche said. Set up a monthly autopay or add all due dates to your calendar so you never miss a bill.

You can also achieve a higher score when you mix different types of accounts on your credit report. It may seem counterintuitive to get extra points for having debt in the form of student loans, mortgages and auto loans, but as long as you’re paying them off responsibly, it shows that you’re reliable.

3. Aim to use 30% or less of your credit at any given time

Know your credit limit and aim to only use 30% or less of it for a better credit score.Tim Robberts / Getty Images

Know your credit card limit, and try not to use any more than 30% of that number each month, otherwise your score could lose points for too much credit utilization.

Another thing you can do is ask your bank to increase your limit. “That will give you more flexibility to spend more,” Nitzsche said. You could also pay it off twice a month to keep the balance low. But he does warn that you never know when the balance is going to be reported to the bureau. It can happen at any point during the month, so it might be the day after you make the payment or the day before. “You don’t necessarily want to use the card and pay it the next day because that doesn’t give the bureau the chance to know that you’re using it,” he said.

4. Avoid requests for new credit

If you’re looking to increase your score around the time you want to buy a house or car, you won’t want to open up a new line of credit, like a retail card, credit card or loan. That’s because “hard” credit inquiries like those can lower your score, and sometimes it comes down to a few points over whether you’re approved or what your rate will be, Nitzsche said.

“Soft” credit inquiries, like when an employer checks your credit or when you pull your own report, won’t affect your score.

5. Keep all accounts open, even ones you don’t use anymore

Even if you don’t use that credit card from college, it’s a good idea to just keep it open because closing it could hurt your score. Nitzsche explained that you’ll be dinged some points for each account that is closed. If you want or need to mentally break up with a card, just cut it up instead.

6. Build your credit if needed

If you haven’t established credit yet, you might not even exist … in the credit report space, that is! “If someone has never fallen in delinquency on any subscriptions or utilities or never had collections on anything and they have not utilized credit cards or loans in the past seven to 10 years, they may not have a credit profile at all,” Nitzsche said. “That presents a challenge when you want to buy a home.”

If this sounds familiar, you may have to get a secured credit card where you put down a deposit, he advised. “You still have to make payments and use it responsibly. Not all banks offer them but you can usually check with your local bank or credit union.”

7. Reach out for help

If you want personal guidance on boosting your credit score, make an appointment with a credit counselor.kate_sept2004 / Getty Images

There are many apps and credit-monitoring services that can help you stay on top of your credit score. You could also reach out to a professional credit counselor who can help you navigate your specific situation. (Here’s a good resource about finding a reputable service.)

One last thing: Nitzsche warned that everyone should beware of credit repair scams that claim to be able to increase credit scores for an advance fee to get accurate negative information removed (even temporarily) from credit reports.

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