Reducing Poverty One Family at a Time!

Cara Russo

Building a Better Future

Cara Russo came to the Circles meeting not knowing what to expect.  It can’t hurt, she thought to herself, I’ve got no where to go but up. Cara, the single mother of two young daughters wanted to build a better life for her children.  She wanted more than what her waitress job provided but how to go about making the changes she needed was the problem.  It is hard enough to survive in poverty but to try and fight your way out – that is a different battle altogether.  Cara knew she wanted a better future for her and her family – she wanted the best for them and was willing to work hard to get it! As part of the Circles initiative, Cara began attending the Getting Ahead classes (using the Getting Ahead in a Just-Getting’- By World curriculum).  The classes provide time and structure for the families to explore poverty on a personal and community level.  Our families, the real experts on poverty, shared what poverty is really like in the community.  Families did assessments on the community and on themselves.  From there they create plans to build resources in their lives and to build a plan to change the community!   It became clear that Cara and the other families in Circles could not only impact their own lives but make a difference in the community as well.  "I take full responsibility for the decisions I made that got me here,” said Cara, “But once I got here it didn’t seem to matter how hard I worked I was stuck here – and that is because the system is broken. We have to work to change that so other families can make it out!” 
During the first year of Circles, Cara took a job at a bank in addition to continuing to waitress part-time. “I felt like I was stepping off a cliff,” she said thinking back to those days.
It was a concrete step toward her goals that actually made life more difficult for her family.  By working 55 or so hours a week, Cara’s income increased, yet the increase in income was not enough to pay for the loss in benefits (loss of food stamps, access to food pantries, increase in child care co-pay and housing costs).  At a community meeting on Food Availability and Sustainability, Cara shared her story with the community, “I had enough to pack my daughters’ lunches for school and child care but that was it.  I was working harder but I was struggling to feed my family.”
As a  result of Cara and the other families sharing their story, a local Caterer began donating food that she had prepared for meetings but was not served to families – she said she has seen Cara and that she was a hard worker.  She had no idea people who worked so hard still had to struggle.  This was one more small part of the community solutions that Cara and the other families were trying to bring about. Cara continued to push forward despite the fact that life had gotten harder.  The job where she was waitressing asked her to come back full time to train other waitresses and they hoped to train her to be a manger in the future.  It was a tough decision to make emotionally, Cara liked working at the bank and had hoped that step into the business world would help her reach her goals, yet the salary there simply wasn’t enough.  She took the training job and while it meant another increase in income again she saw a cut in benefits.
“It shouldn’t be this way,” said Megan Shreve, SCCAP’s Executive Director and the Circles Facilitator.  Cara was working so hard and life was getting more difficult.  Yet she still fought on and all the while she and our other families shared their stories with the community - changing it little by little.  “It is amazing and humbling to watch,” said Megan Shreve.
Cara continues moving forward.  Recently she was offered a position as a manager.  She negotiated a salary that would offset the benefits she would be giving up.  Her salary is above 200% of the Federal Income Poverty Guidelines which is an amazing success.  That doesn’t mean life is easy.  She works 50+ hours per week and she is able to pay her bills all by herself with no government assistance but there is not a lot left over – and yet both the sense of accomplishment and the opportunity to help others motivates her.  She has been approved for a Habitat House and is looking to continue moving forward providing a better life for her and her family.
Cara now volunteers in Circles as an Ally – she wants to help families like her fight there way out of poverty.  Cara doesn’t want to stop there.  She wants to work to change policy and fix broken systems.  She plans to continue to share her story.  “If it changes one more person’s thinking,” Cara said, “That’s one more person joining us as we work to change our community.”