Category Archives: Circles in Action

Circles USA Hosts Virtual Leadership Conference

Circles USA’s Leadership Conference: April 19-23, 2021

2020 brought so many people to the breaking point. Families struggled to make ends meet. Volunteers and staff gave everything they had. In the face of unprecedented economic insecurity, let’s come together to strengthen our breakthrough solution.

  • BREAKTHROUGH – VISION: How to develop a bold plan for reducing poverty?
  • BREAKTHROUGH – SYSTEMS: How to move from poverty management to poverty reduction?
  • BREAKTHROUGH – JOBS: How to find job pathways for workers with low incomes?
  • BREAKTHROUGH – ISSUES: How to tackle Big View issues like the cliff effect, housing, and transportation?
  • BREAKTHROUGH – RESULTS: How to evaluate and grow your impact?
  • BREAKTHROUGH – RELATIONSHIPS: How to make meaningful connections during the pandemic?
  • BREAKTHROUGH – STORIES: How to elevate stories from our mission-driven community?

Save the date to join Circles USA online to be inspired, share innovative practices, and work together to create breakthroughs for your community.

See your CUSA newsletter for the link to purchase your conference tickets at the early bird rate.  Contact Gena for more information: gena@circlesusa.org  

Circles Green Bay Hosts Poverty Symposium

As part of their Poverty Reduction Lab initiative, Circles Green Bay, led by Jen Schmohe, hosted a public discussion to generate a shared vision for 2021 priorities with regard to large scale poverty reduction in Brown County, WI.

The session on January 14, 2021 focused on how to leverage resources for young adults in the 18-32 year old age range and successfully connect them to in-demand career pathways. Jen Schmohe appreciated the diversity and number of attendees who are interested in this important work.


“We need to continue the dialogue, look for others to join the work, and strive to develop new responses for the narratives of poverty.

By focusing on the young adult age range of 18-32 with our poverty reduction efforts, we will be able to set benchmarks for success and rally organizations to exert urgency in the pursuit of self sufficiency and stability for the households that are the future of Green Bay’s vitality.”

— Jen Schmohe from Green Bay, WI


As pictured here, featured speakers included:

  • Troy Murphy, GBCC Senior Pastor
  • Scott Miller, Circles USA
  • Jen Schmohe, Circles Green Bay
  • Spencer Bonnie of Achieve Brown County
  • Robyn Davis and Sarah Inman of Brown County United Way
  • Cheryl Detrick of NEWCAP
  • Amber Edwards, former Circle Leader
  • Natalie Bomstad of Wello

Their next poverty reduction meeting is already scheduled for March. Congratulations on a successful launch of this community-wide initiative.

Lives Transformed Volume 2: Covid-19 Stories – Part 4

Lives Transformed Volume 2 will introduce you to four Circle Leaders who have changed their lives with Circles even in a time of COVID-19.  Here is Part 4 in a 4 part series honoring the hard work and dedication of our Circle Leaders and their supporting chapter.


“Circles opened the door to finding my passions and following my dreams.”

— Alyssa from Clearfield, UT


My family never worried about money until 2013 when my parents divorced. I was 14. This created some big changes for my mom, my brothers, and me. We went from a six-figure income to living on government assistance of a thousand dollars a month. It was hard for my mom to ask for help, but one day while at the local food bank, she heard about Circles and decided to give ita try.

My mom and I were both pretty shy, so when we first started going to Circles, we tended to hide in the corner and didn’t really talk until someone talked to us. I wasn’t old enough to be with the adults, so I played games with the kids. After awhile, I started to see a change in my mom. She saw how everyone at Circles was friendly and welcoming. Because everyone really cared about each other, she believed it was worth it to keep going. Once my mom completed the training and was matched with an Ally, she really started coming out of her shell—and so did I.

I wanted to make Circles a better experience for teenagers like me. So I talked to Lamont Hampton, ourchapter director, and he encouraged me to start a program for teens. I began with the financial literacy curriculum used in my high school and quickly financial changes. I wanted teens to understand how credit works and how to get a loan or even buy a house. I looked for other teenagers who were passionate about these issues and asked them to become Allies for our youth in Circles. We even started a podcast, “Poverty from the Mindset of a Teen,” and recorded three sessions before Covid-19 struck.

Even though life during the pandemic has been tough, our Circles chapter has kept going. We have actually helped our community grow closer despite the need for physical distance. Part of that included “Circles Invasions” where we offered Zoom sessions five days a ​week ​using a different theme each day. We connected online and even did yoga together. We didn’t stop with virtual connection. People from Circles dropped off fun snacks and organized surprise birthday messages in chalk on sidewalks and driveways for our Circles family. There has been so much caring and encouragement throughout this time.

Last winter, my mom became the first college graduate in her family when she graduated with her RN. She became a licensed nurse this past September. I am so proud of her! I’m following her lead and have started college. I am going to be a lawyer and advocate for the wrongly accused. But just because I’m in college doesn’t mean I have stopped going to Circles. It may be a 45-minute drive, but I’d drive a lot farther than that for Circles. Circles has changed me. I’m no longer the shy kid hiding in the background. I have found my voice and know that I can be a part of creating something positive for other youth. Circles has opened up opportunities for me to lead and helped me heal from the trauma connected with poverty. I can think of nothing better than to do the same for other youth like me!

Lives Transformed Volume 2: Covid-19 Stories – Part 3

Lives Transformed Volume 2 will introduce you to four Circle Leaders who have changed their lives with Circles even in a time of COVID-19.  Here is Part 3 in a 4 part series honoring the hard work and dedication of our Circle Leaders and their supporting chapter.


“I didn’t have healthy role models growing up. Because of Circles, I am becoming the parent I want to be for my kids.”

— Eve from Derby, KS


I grew up moving around a lot because my dad was a drug dealer and both my parents were users. At the age of 10, my mom died from Hepatitis C. My dad got remarried when I was 11, but I never felt accepted by my stepmom. I attempted suicide and ran away from home for my own safety. Unfortunately, I kicked a police officer who thought he was helping me by trying to take me home. This resulted in me being charged with battery of a law enforcement officer, and I was put into foster care.

I bounced around different homes—some within my own family—but I was so traumatized from my young childhood that I tried to take my own life again. At this point, my dad completely abandoned me, and I spent the rest of my childhood in a group home for children. This was the first place I experienced stability.

When I was 17, I tried to go back to my dad, but my stepmom wouldn’t allow it. I then met a 29-year-old and married him. We had three children and divorced when my youngest child was just 2 years old. I met another man who seemed amazing but started abusing me within a year and almost killed me. Two more abusers were part of my life after this, and I lived in fear for several years. I lost job after job due to PSTD and constant worry about someone coming after me. My sister helped me move to a different city and got me connected with a case manager. I thought I was doing OK because my kids were fed and my bills were paid, but the case manager pointed out that I was getting help from the food bank and local churches. She ultimately helped change my life because she introduced me to Circles.

I was learning how to rebuild my life as I worked my way through the Circle Leader training. After I finished the training, I moved to another city and contacted the Circles chapter there. The director asked me, “What do you want for your life, Eve?” And this helped me take the steps needed to move out of a roach-infested apartment and start saving enough money to buy a house. Circles has given me the strength to hope for something better for my family and gain the tools and connections to make it happen. Getting my high school diploma was one of the goals that my Circles family wouldn’t let me give up on even though there was a pandemic. I had dreamed of what it would be like to wear a cap and gown, and when my graduation ceremony was canceled, my Circles family hosted a ceremony just for me. I wore my cap and gown! It was better than I imagined and all the more special because I was celebrating with the people who had cheered me on all along the way! I started college in August, 2020. I have been clean and sober for over six years and now serve as the Coach for my local Circles chapter.

Circles has provided a place of stability for both me and my children. Even though I didn’t have loving and supportive parents as a child, the director of my Circles chapter has modeled the kind of care and concern I want to give my own children. Now I have the opportunity to do that for my kids and other Circle Leaders.

As the Circles Coach, I have a special bond with each Circle Leader because I have something in common with each person. Childhood trauma? I experienced a lot. Addiction? I’ve been there. Abuse? I am a survivor. That connection with our Circle Leaders has been really valuable during Covid-19. I call my Circle Leaders every week to check in and encourage them, to make sure they keep moving toward their goals. It has taken a lot of extra work, but it is worth it. It helps me keep going on my goals too! I want to encourage others who are experiencing the same challenges I had.

Lives Transformed Volume 2: Covid-19 Stories – Part 2

Lives Transformed Volume 2 will introduce you to four Circle Leaders who have changed their lives with Circles even in a time of COVID-19.  Here is Part 2 in a 4 part series honoring the hard work and dedication of our Circle Leaders and their supporting chapter.


“My story isn’t special. It’s the story of so many people that don’t have the ability to tell theirs.”

— Amber from Green Bay, WI


When I found Circles, I was at rock bottom. I was homeless and couch surfing with my two-year-old daughter who has cystic fibrosis. I was working three jobs, had five case workers, and still couldn’t find housing. I was running out of money and resources and looking for some direction. I heard about Circles while attending a required job readiness training class. I liked what I heard, but I also could tell that I would not benefit from this program unless I went all in. And so I did.

I have made a lot of progress, but that hasn’t come without significant setbacks. As of today, I am halfway to where I want to be. I have a good-paying job in a position that I am relatively good at. I have achieved the Circles goal of 200% of the poverty level. But along the way I got nailed with the cliff effect, twice! I got a great job and then an unbelievable raise within two months of being hired. With each increase in pay, I lost benefits that my pay increases didn’t make up for. I felt particularly distraught when I lost medical benefits for my daughter. But my Allies were there for me. They picked up food for me, helped get my daughter to doctor’s appointments while I was at work, and reminded me constantly that I was doing much better than I had been just a few of months before. They provided the support system that I desperately needed.

When the pandemic hit, it felt like just one more blow. I was worried about my daughter since we weren’t able to leave home. However, our Circles chapter decided to go virtual during the shutdown, so that helped. More importantly, both our Allies and other Circle Leaders regularly checked in on us—especially since they knew my daughter missed her friends from Circles. Our Circles director and coaches have been creative in orchestrating in-person, socially distanced, outdoor activities this past summer that allowed my daughter to interact with her friends again. These activities are helping my daughter recognize the voices and needs of others.

The last two years have taught me that there are no limits to what I am capable of achieving. I have achieved a lot on my own, but Circles people have helped me recognize capabilities that I didn’t know I had. I did not know that I could stand in front of a crowd of people. I didn’t know that I could be a part of changing the system that has failed me and so many others. I didn’t know that sharing my story could make a difference. I didn’t know that I had enough courage to acknowledge my own actions that brought me into poverty. I’m now involved in local politics and working to address minimum wage and other issues that affect people in poverty.

My story is not extraordinary, but now I’m not afraid to share it. When I started Circles, I was homeless. But I worked hard, started a new career, and graduated from Circles. Now I give back as an ambassador to the community. I am not done with Circles because the system has to change. It is not good enough that I made it. This is a struggle for so many people. People shouldn’t have to work three jobs and be homeless. They shouldn’t have to lose their childcare benefits or fall off any other cliff when something is just beginning to go right for them. I’m doing something about it!

For me, thriving means not living under the anxiety and fear that what I have is all going to go away. I don’t feel that fear the way I used to. Circles has provided people to help me overcome life’s rough spots, which has opened opportunities for me to advocate for others and make lasting systemic changes.

Lives Transformed Volume 2: Covid-19 Stories – Part 1

Lives Transformed Volume 2 will introduce you to four Circle Leaders who have changed their lives with Circles even in a time of COVID-19.  Here is Part 1 in a 4 part series honoring the hard work and dedication of our Circle Leaders and their supporting chapter.


“My situation isn’t perfect yet, but Circleshas perfectly prepared me for my journey out of poverty.”

— Vivian from Ashland, VA


Even though I was born into generational poverty, I knew where I wanted to go with my life. I just didn’t know how to get there. My three children and I were receiving food stamps, and to make ends meet, I was working two to three jobs. It seemed like I was working all the time and there was no end to this pattern.

One day, the principal at the school where I worked told me about Circles. She said it wasn’t a handout, but it could help me get out of my situation. At my first visit, I felt an instant connection. Everyone was personal and friendly. This welcoming atmosphere encouraged me to get started. The matching process connected me with the perfect Allies.

My Allies have supported me as I have worked to meet my goals. Their experiences and expertise were the perfect fit for the kind of financial and educational support I wanted. Since I became a Circle Leader, I’m not on food stamps anymore, and my family and I are living in a newer rental. I started school, and I will finish my bachelor’s degree next summer. My five-year plan includes becoming a homeowner for the first time and completing a master’s degree in school counseling.

Being a part of Circles during the Covid-19 pandemic has been life-giving for me. Even though we were physically apart, Covid brought us closer together because we were all feeling this crisis in a similar way. Our Circles community met each week through Zoom, and our program leaders delivered food to our homes. Unfortunately, I couldn’t work for three months during the shutdown, so my savings got depleted. Lots of us had financial issues during this time, so our program leader pointed us toward resources for assistance. Circles reminded me that I was not alone in these challenges.

The most difficult part of life during this pandemic was the tragic death of one of my children this past Mother’s Day. My Circles community supported my family in amazing ways. One of the program leaders had gone through a similar death of a child and suggested counselors for my family. She also brought food twice a day for several weeks. This kind of deep support has impacted me tremendously. When I felt like I couldn’t go on, the support from Circles reminded me of my own strength and the strength ofour community.

Circles has reinforced generosity as a way of life for me. I have received so much from my Circles family in termsof resources, knowing what’s available in the community, and people who care. I am now passing these things along to other Circle Leaders. My next step is to become an Ally with our next group of Circle Leaders so I can pay it forward.

Working Together to End Poverty + Racism

“Thousands of protesters gather at the Minnesota State Capitol on Sunday to demand justice for George Floydional Guard troops secured the perimeter of the Capitol building.” (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

How can Circles USA adequately respond to racism? Let’s be in community together to listen to each other and support our way forward. Please join me on Wednesday, June 3 at 1pm Pacific, 2pm Mountain, 3pm Central, 4pm Eastern. Email gena@circlesusa.org for the Zoom Meeting ID and password. In the meantime, here are some of my reflections:

Changing the mindset: At Circles, we believe that human beings can eradicate the conditions of poverty. The challenge is not about finding enough resources or figuring out what systems to change, but aligning the conviction: “We can and should end poverty!” Let’s bring this same bold energy to encourage ourselves and our communities that we can make a difference in addressing racism.

Understanding this present moment: A recurring question during meetings with our board, staff, and partners: “What are you seeing/hearing/noticing about COVID-19 in relation to current trends for poverty reduction?” This week, we’ll reflect on the recent protests and social unrest. Your perspective is invited too: here’s more about our story-collection process. Gaining clarity about this present moment will inform the organization’s strategic planning, ensuring we can be nimble enough to respond to what’s most pressing. 

Addressing inequity: In U.S. history, we have been managing the symptoms of poverty but not treating the cause. Circles Chapters advance necessary systemic change through the “Big View” committee and monthly meeting. Soon, Circles USA will release a policy platform with local and national recommendations on six key issues: quality jobs, cliff effect, broadband access, healthcare, housing, and transportation. We can use a lens of race equity in each Big View issue; as we design policy solutions, we can compensate for structural biases that make marginalized communities most vulnerable. 

Voting: Circles USA has been organizing a non-partisan Civic Participation Campaign to promote voter education and voter turnout. The campaign launched with a webinar, Civic Engagement 101. On June 17, our webinar about a “candidates’ forum” will teach Chapters how to share community stories with those in a position to make change. Your voice and your vote matters.

Considering privilege: Circles USA recently upgraded training for volunteers to be more responsive to the complex context of poverty with new material on structural racism. Understanding my own privilege, as a white person, has been important to my social-justice journey. There are so many great resources, such as Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism and Layla Saad’s Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor

Reaching out: Our friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues who are Black/African-American are experiencing a lot of trauma this week. Let’s not feel so daunted by injustice that we forget to ask those around us, “How can I best support you right now?” Building relationships across lines of difference is the heart of the Circles model. In a time of such intense polarization, let’s invest in relationships.

Many thanks to our Circles Chapters for continuing to build such thriving communities. I’m looking forward to our upcoming community conversation. 

~Jamie Haft, Executive Director, Circles USA

NEW 2019 Impact Report Released

Click HERE to download the PDF.

Featured sections include:

  • Our new Chapter curriculum for Circle Leaders, Allies, and Staff
  • Our work on systemic change, including Big View, Cliff Effect, and Poverty Reduction Labs
  • A recap of our 2019 Leadership Conference

We thank all of our dedicated staff, volunteers, and Circle Leaders across our network whose steadfast efforts are represented in this report.

Office of Family Assistance Publishes Brief Featuring Circles USA as Innovative Strategy for TANF

Circles USA is proud to be featured as an innovative strategy for TANF programs in a new brief, “Social Capital Initiatives To Achieve Employment Goals.” This brief is part of the Office of Family Assistance’s Emerging Practice Series, which highlights how TANF agencies and their partners are helping low-income individuals gain and sustain meaningful employment.

Here’s a description:

“TANF participants in Utah are moving from poverty to earning incomes at or above 200% of the federal poverty level (FPL) through a social capital-building strategy. Implemented by the Utah Department of Workforce Services through partnerships with community action agencies, the Circles program matches TANF participants with community volunteers in a long-term weekly support group. With this circle of support and resources, participants are empowered to move toward employment and self-sufficiency.

The brief [gives] an overview of the program model, and the results that have been achieved. Compelling stories of participants’ success and suggestions from TANF agency staff to their peers provide actionable insights and on-the-ground perspectives.”

Click here to download the brief.

 

Circles Sharing Webinar: 2020 Big View Strategy + Civic Engagement 101

Is your Chapter seeking to engage policymakers? promote voter education and voter turnout? advance lasting change on issues like affordable housing, the Cliff Effect, reliable transportation, and more? This webinar is for you!

Through Circles USA, Chapters and Poverty Reduction Labs are advancing systemic change on key issues. This is the Big View – and it creates a foundation to develop and promote a shared anti-poverty agenda. In an election year like 2020, we have a unique opportunity to scale-up Big View efforts across the country and raise visibility for our mission of ending poverty.

The webinar will feature guest facilitator Amy Basken, a seasoned legislative advocate who serves as Director of Programs at the Pediatric Congenital Heart Association. Amy also volunteers with Circles Sauk Prairie, WI.

Amy’s webinar presentation will cover the basics of civic engagement, including:

  • how a bill becomes a law;
  • which policymakers to contact;
  • tips for in-person and virtual communication with officials;
  • opportunities during an election year;
  • and the importance of sharing your stories with those in a position to make a change.

Watch the webinar here.