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.”
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 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 it’s 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 a 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 feel to 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 do 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 Hick 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.