Established in 2014, Circles USA Network Awards celebrate the best of what our chapters do out in the world. This year, we received our highest-ever volume of nominations due to the outstanding leadership so many of you demonstrate in your work building community to end poverty. Your excellence has raised the bar; it’s also made choosing standout contributors to the CUSA community of practice both a challenge and a joy for our board members.
Today, we are thrilled to spotlight the winners of our 2023 Network Awards, presented live on day three of the recent Leadership Conference at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Orlando, FL.
Congratulations to all these CUSA Network rock stars!
“Circles NWA: Shaletha’s Story” from Circles Northwest Arkansas | Fayetteville, AR
From its gorgeous production values to its inspiring narrative of Circle Leader Shaletha’s progress in establishing a budget plan to build an emergency fund, this video exemplifies how the medium can highlight chapter accomplishments.
To learn about some of the amazing stories coming out of the first cohort of Circle Leaders and Allies from Circles NWA, or to get involved in Circles, visit Circles NWA’s website at www.circlesnwa.org.
Circles Salt Lake | Salt Lake County, UT
“Circles Salt Lake’s social media shows how a chapter can use platforms like Facebook and Instagram to highlight the people and orgs making a difference in your community,” says CUSA executive director Kamatara Johnson. “Their content is balanced and diverse, their events look inviting, and anyone would want to follow a chapter sharing this much new and good information.”
Circles Upstate South Carolina | Greenville, SC
CUSA Information Systems and Design Manager Courtney Cowan reports that this chapter is “up to date on their Circle Leader progress reports and the general demographic survey. They also have great engagement with their Ally-Staff-Volunteer progress reports with really good feedback. Their data tells a powerful story for their chapter!”
Circles Salt Lake | Salt Lake County, UT
Kamatara says of Circles Salt Lake’s newsletter: “As with their social media, Salt Lake is ahead of the curve with great visuals, timely updates on important events and initiatives, clear communication with their community, and lots of feel-good inspiration for their network.”
Beth Witten from Circles Central Florida | Winter Garden, FL
Beth Witten has been involved with Circles in Central Florida for 10 years, from the very beginning. She embodies the term Circles Champion! Her roles have included: Hands On Training; Ally; Chapter Coordinator; multiple resource teams; donor; Data and Financial Program Manager; and driver of a multi-year grant, focused on the intersection of domestic violence and poverty, coordinated with Circle Leaders to design a 12-hour course on financial empowerment.
Lynette Fields of Florida’s Poverty Solutions Group says, “Beth is a humble and gracious servant leader who has shared countless hours of her time because she believes in the work and outcomes of Circles. She works behind the scenes in a quiet and unassuming way that keeps things moving along. In any given week, you might find her clearing tables, picking up food, driving a Circle Leader’s child to daycare, or designing recruitment graphics. We are so very grateful to have someone who shares her talents and time so selflessly. Thank you, Beth, for being our Circles Champion!”
Emily Gilbertson from Circles Northwest Arkansas | Fayetteville, AR
Christina Williams, executive director of Innovative Poverty Solutions, writes: “Emily Gilbertson is a rockstar. She has built a strong volunteer base for the programming at Circles of Northwest Arkansas and cares for them so well. She also is amazing at communicating with our Circle Leaders and Allies. Each group gets a text from her each week to confirm attendance and let them know what to expect for the week.” Emily is a model coordinator, engaging her community in dynamic ways and supporting them every step of the way.
Joyce Schoepp from Circles Sauk Prairie | Sauk City, WI
From Sarah and John Ramthun, leaders of Circles 6:8: “Joyce has been a part of the Leadership of our Circles chapter from its beginning almost 5 years ago. She goes above and beyond [in] her role as Coach. (For one thing, she serves as coach on a volunteer, unpaid basis!) She personally calls Leaders and Allies during the week as needed to check in on them if they are struggling, need a little extra encouragement, someone to listen to, or need a little kick in the pants to stay on top of their goals and commitments. Sometimes these conversations last for hours and are followed up by check-ins and texts until there is resolution. Joyce is at Circles every Monday, does our interviews, and meets with multiple Matched Circles every week. Everyone knows Joyce has their back and yet she will not let us (staff or Leaders/Allies) slack on our commitments. She wants to see EVERYONE succeed, but will not let you off the hook. Joyce is the perfect combination of tender compassion and loving force to be a Circles Coach and Sauk Prairie is lucky to have her!!!”
Van and Lauren Schwiebert from Circles Hilton Head Island | Hilton Head Island, SC
When Van & Lauren were asked to provide a statement to support a grant the chapter recently applied for, here’s what they said about Circles and their experience:
“We long have felt the need to do something to address economic injustice, but we never knew what we, as individuals, could do or how we could make a difference in the lives of others. Having grown up in nuclear families in suburban New York, we really had no specific comprehension of the causes of poverty and the reasons people have such difficulty removing themselves from that condition. The Circles Program has been a real learning experience for us!
Since becoming involved in Circles, we are better informed about the causes, effects, and traumas of poverty. Equally important, we have been able to meet, learn to know, and interact with individuals who are attempting to make a difference in their own lives.
Because of our backgrounds, we were not sure what skills or knowledge we would bring to the table, but we have come to learn that simply being there to offer encouragement, moral support, and listening ears can have a positive impact. Through Circles, we have learned about others and their struggles, we have been able to empathize with them, and we have become more aware of how challenges can be addressed and overcome. We think we have gained as much as we have given.”
Sandi Wallace from Circles West Orange | Orlando, FL
Sandi’s Circle Leader, Annette Brown, had these glowing words to describe her Ally:
“Unlike previous experiences when volunteers would just tell me what I needed to do, Sandi approached the Circles experience with ‘how can I help you? And ‘what do you need from me?’ Our Matched Circle has had some very difficult and risky conversations; Sandi was willing to see things through other people’s lenses, without criticizing or being judgmental. Sandi is totally committed to the role of being an Ally. She will literally stop what she’s doing to support me, even in my darkest moments. When my cat was hit by a car, she rushed to the animal hospital. When my brother was hospitalized, she was by my side. My life, and the way I see myself, have all changed drastically because of Circles and my Allies.”
Sandi is a noted champion for voter education and civic engagement. In fall of 2020, 100% of our chapter attendees told us they voted—some for the first time! In 2022, Sandi expanded her efforts and helped our Circles community to Adopt-a-Precinct. This experience provided team building, community visibility, a deeper appreciation and understanding of how our election system works, and was also an outstanding fundraiser.
“It’s easy to believe what you hear others say about poverty,” Sandi says. “But it’s something altogether different when you see the realities of generational poverty with your own eyes. Because of Circles, I now have friends who have battled poverty their entire lives, and they are some of the hardest working, most resourceful people I have ever met. Standing on the outside of the problem pointing fingers doesn’t solve anything. But you can be part of the solution if you get involved with an organization like Circles. We need more people who want to be part of the solution.”
Carly Maine from Circles in Columbus | Columbus, GA
The video Carly shared with us about her time at Circles speaks volumes about her dedication to excellence:
Carly’s determination to move from surviving to thriving saw her move, last year, to a large new townhouse. And, as an Ally, Carly has just seen her first Circle Leader graduate. On top of all that, her daughter is now 22 years old, has a decent job, and has broken the cycle of poverty that held their family for so long. Carly is really demonstrating the intergenerational success of Circles!
Carmen Gonzales from Circles Northwest Arkansas | Fayetteville, AR
You may remember Carmen from her standing-ovation keynote address:
Carmen recently graduated from her first cohort. During her time at Circles, she bought her first home, changed jobs after being at the same place for over 10 years, made huge strides with her budget, and pursued training to be an advocate for disability rights. She is a strong advocate for her daughter, who has autism. She also spoke on the panel for the Cliff Effect event at Circles of NWA.
Carmen hit the 200% goal and has graduated from the program. She is now serving as a Program Facilitator for their second and third cohorts, being a listening ear and supporter for them, and paying it forward for those who were in her shoes.