‘Hands Across’ would bring people together to benefit all

August 1, 2012 by

The Rev. Tessa Zehring envisions a program that allows people to reach across the chasm that often exists between those who are successful and those who are financially distressed, so that everyone benefits.

What she does not envision, she told the more than 40 community members who attended Wednesday’s “working lunch” at the Nazareth Motherhouse, is “a program where a bunch of middle-class people decide what’s needed by people who are struggling. This is about hands reaching across.”

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The idea, in fact, provides the proposed name for the program: Hands Across, which is being designed by Zehring and the other 20 or so volunteers working with her.

Wednesday’s lunch was the 19th session in the Community Needs Forum, a process that started in the fall of 2008 with informal meetings with the Sisters of St. Joseph. In addition to identifying what participants see as the greatest needs in the community, the meetings have established smaller groups to seek solutions. The quarterly “working lunches” provide on an opportunity for updates on projects and a clearinghouse for new ideas.

At the last working lunch in May, Zehring, who is pastor of First United Methodist Church in Concordia, said that many people get frustrated with anti-poverty programs “when they’re a hand-out. If you can show this is a hand-up, then you can get community support.”

So the volunteer committee has been working this summer to do just that. Zehring said much of the research and preliminary organization has been completed by Kathleen Norman, a senior at the State University of New York at Oneonta who has been volunteering with the Sisters of St. Joseph. Norman returns to her home in Papillion, Neb., this Friday and then will return to college.

The goal of Hands Across is to pair people who are struggling but want to become self-sufficient with “community coaches” who would take part in the program with them and be there for encouragement and support.

Thanks to a Seize the Moment grant from the Community Foundation for Cloud County, members of Zehring’s committee are in the process of interviewing possible participants in Hands Across and refining how the program will work.

“Finances will be the criteria (for determining eligibility for Hands Across),” Zehring said, “but that’s not what it’s all about. This is about people changing their lives, and there are many aspects to that.”

The program will eventually include training – both for the “Leaders” (the people working to change their lives) and their “Coaches” – plus regular meetings and other types of emotional support and mentoring. Zehring also stressed that individuals face different challenges, and so one important goal of Hands Across is the flexibility to adapt to help each individual resolve his or her own situation.

First, though, is simply finding people — people who are struggling to become self-sufficient and who are willing to make a commitment to Hands Across; people who will commit to serve as “coaches;” people who will help out as behind-the-scenes volunteers, providing meals or child care or whatever other services may be needed; people with suggestions or ideas about how the program could work; and people who will help find the funding to make it all possible.

Anyone who wants more information or to volunteer can contact committee member Jennifer Stull at 243-2149 or call Zehring at the church, 243-4560.

Zehring’s audience Wednesday was generally very supportive of the program’s design, but there were a few concerns raised.

Everett Ford, who has been a regular participant in the Community Needs Forum, said a program like Hands Across requires “a good evaluation of these people to see if they’re ready to change.”

City Commission member Charles Johnson had a broader concern: “We have to educate the community that we do have poverty here,” he said.

The annual Kansas Statistical Abstract, which brings together data from a huge array of government sources, backs that up. In Cloud County:

  • For the 2010-11 school year, 57.2 percent of schoolchildren were eligible for free and reduced lunches.
  • 8.2 percent of the county’s residents received Food Stamps in 2010.
  • An estimated 14.2 percent of the county’s population lived at or below the federal poverty level in 2009. (But based on the report’s margin of error, that number could be as high as 17.2 percent.)
  • Per capita personal income in 2009 was $32,972, ranking Cloud County 72nd among the 105 counties in Kansas.

Each of those is the most recent statistic available.

Others in the audience were impressed with the new program’s direction.

“Helping one another is about being valued,” said Marla Jorgenson. “This is not about middle-class people helping people in poverty; it’s about people helping people, and it has to be a community program.”

The next Community Needs Forum working lunch is set for Wednesday, Oct. 17. Anyone interested is encouraged to attend. You do not have to have taken part in any of the earlier sessions to join the conversation now.

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