FORT MADISON – About 80 Lee County economic and business representatives were introduced to a program aimed at knocking down hurdles that prop up generational poverty.
Vern Reed, an at-risk counselor at West Burlington High School and trained specialist in the Bridges Out of Poverty international program, spoke to the group about how to move forward with getting a program going that would work in concert with Building Bridges – a southeast Iowa initiative that is already functional in Des Moines County.
The program aims at identifying the members of the county living in poverty and trying to knock down some barriers that make that poverty cross generations in families. After the indentification, then the program aims at classes that help open lines of communication.
Reed said one of the key components of the class is incorporating all socioeconomic groups; poverty, middle class, and wealth into the program and bringing all minds to the table to start solving problems and building resources.
“The real experts on poverty are the people who’ve been living in poverty. They’re the experts and they need to be in the discussion. But it takes all the groups to be invested in the discussion to start real change,” Reed said.
He said one of the biggest hurdles he’s come across is changing the lens through which those not living in poverty, view those who do. He said poverty needs a three-lens view through the individual, the institution, and the community.
Reed has helped build a program in Des Moines County that has graduated more than 40 adults from an initial Getting Ahead class and built an “Investigations” night class for students living in poverty.
In one of the most hard-hitting moments of the presentation, Reed showed, as part of one of the Investigations class, a standup survey where he asked students to stand up if they could answer yes to a number of questions. One of the questions was if the students were aware of anyone in the school that had thought or talked about committing suicide and almost every student stood up in the video.
Reed said the way poverty is viewed has to change for real results to take hold.
“We have to hold on to expectations. The expectations to be on time, to obey the rules, but we have to look at what’s going on in their lives and why what they are doing is making sense to them,” Reed said.
Dennis Fraise, Director of Operations for the Lee County Economic Development Group, said he was happy with the attendance.
“We had hoped for 70 to 75 people and we had to bring in more chairs and that’s a great problem to have,” he said. That tells us that people realize that we have an issue with poverty in Lee County and people want to be involved.
He said the next step is to establish a steering committee that would start investigating what a program would look like in Lee County and how to collaborate with the current southeast Iowa plan.
“We’re gonna start putting our steering committee together and try to get a look at Vern’s schedule after the holidays and then start building a team,” Fraise said.
Reed said the programs aren’t cookie cutter and Lee County’s program may not look like a program in other counties or communities across the state and country.
Sylvia Mills-Echols, a former teacher from Keokuk, who’s now a part of Keokuk Association for Race and Equality (K.A.R.E.) said she was impressed with Reed’s presentation and said it’s time to do something to get Lee County kids off the streets. The group brought five people to the presentation.
“I was so glad to see that Lee County was involved,” Mills-Echols said. “We’re part of K.A.R.E., it’s a caring organization so were definitely supportive. I think most of the people were in there.”
She said she wanted to personally be involved in the program to help the youth and families that are struggling.
“I definitely want to be involved. I hope we can get some of these kids off the streets that aren’t motivated and don’t have a vision. We have to do something for our youth. We can’t take care of them for the rest of our lives. I’d love to, but we got a short wire here.”
Fort Madison Community School District Superintendent Erin Slater said Reed’s presentation is an important conversation to continue in the county.
“I think this is an important conversation, not only for education, but for the communities so we can wrap ourselves around families that want to better. They just need help and support to do that,” she said.
But she said movement has to come as a group and not individually.
“I think we need to take this conversation and make sure we continue it in a broad fashion so we’re not just episodically as individual groups trying to wrap ourselves around the issues,” she said. “Put multiple groups around the same table – then I think we can be more effective.”