Over the next few months, meet four Circle Leaders who have changed their lives with Circles.
“I was doing everything I knew to get out of poverty. But to my shock, it became apparent that I really knew very little about any other economic class other than my own.”
—Rebecca Lewis-Pankratz, McPherson KS
I was raised in poverty, and at age 16, I dropped out of high school and left home with a boyfriend. That began a 13-year period of drugs, alcohol, and an abusive relationship. We moved from Kansas to Texas to Tennessee to Arkansas to Oklahoma.
At age 29, I finally left the boyfriend who was then my husband. Soon after I left, I realized I was pregnant. Thinking of my newborn son and his future, I started college and a job.
I was still struggling with alcohol on and off and with relationships that didn’t last. I had another son and then another. Financial aid helped with tuition, but to make ends meet, I worked as a janitor at my college and as an art instructor for kids. In 2010 when my financial aid ran out, I took a third job as a bartender to cover my final years of tuition.
During that time, I stopped by a church that I frequented to receive free diapers. I told the kind lady who handed out the diapers how much those diapers meant to me and how someday I was going to finish school, claim a better life for my kids, and return to give back. She pointed to a flyer about a class called Circles that helps people get out of poverty.
I thought, “What are these people going to teach me about poverty that I don’t already know?” Then I thought, “I’ve gotten so many diapers from this lady that I better sign up!” So I did.
I was doing everything I knew to get out of poverty. But to my shock, it became apparent that I really knew very little about any other economic class other than my own. I learned I was a master at putting out fires but inept as to how to keep them from igniting.
In 2011, I entered Circles scared, broken, exhausted, and suspicious of the program. But I left that first night with hope and was able to admit how alone and vulnerable I had been all those years.
When I started Circles, my boys were 9, 5, and 2, and we lived in a trailer with broken windows, holes in the floor, and a faulty water heater. I owned a car, but it was always breaking down. I was at work or at school five or six nights each week, which meant dragging my kids home late in the evening from the babysitter. My school-aged kids struggled with behavior issues. And, I felt like a failure as a mother.
Twelve weeks later, I graduated from Circles training. I committed to attend weekly meetings for 18 months. Classmates and I were matched with middle-class “Allies,” who became our friends. Everything in my life started falling into place. My name came up for a housing voucher, and we left the trailer park. A friend helped me find a dependable car. And that year, 2012, I became the first person in my family to graduate from college.
I received a paid, part-time position helping with Circles, and the church that housed our Circles office asked me to be the outreach coordinator for the diaper and food ministry. The first time I went to Walmart and filled up the cart with diapers, I could not stop the tears from streaming down my face. I had become the kind lady who helps moms like me.
I set long-term goals with my Allies. I wanted to get my teeth fixed. Thirteen appointments and $1,700 later, I reached that goal. I wanted out of poverty. In early 2014, I was hired as a full-time Circles coach. I was working three jobs at the time, but with this new position, I was finally making enough to officially leave poverty. My third goal was to buy a home. Looking back, I estimated that I had moved 71 times.
In 2016, I remarried. In 2017, I landed a great job directing student services and poverty issues at a large educational consulting company. Today, my boys are 15, 12, and 9. Our household income is $120,000 per year. And, yes, we own a home. Sometimes I’ll hear a little voice in my head that says, “Rebecca, you’re not poor anymore.” It’s almost unbelievable.