What is Strive to Thrive?

ALBANY, GA (WALB) - We live in one of the poorest regions of a state in the poorest part of the country. Strive to Thrive is an innovative program to solve our poverty problem that works to help families who are stuck in generational cycles of poverty, break free and succeed.

There are many factors that contribute to the poverty problem in Southwest Georgia.  What are some of them and what are the chances of solving them?

The Albany Rescue Mission is where many south Georgians trapped in poverty go for help.

After run ins with the law, DeAvonte Carter is now working to make sure he isn't stuck in a cycle of poverty.  He's working at the Albany Rescue Mission and attending Albany Technical College.  He says he knows an education is the key for escaping poverty. "I can do it. I'm 21. I'm young and I can make a difference. I want be something to myself and do something for myself."

Darton College Economics Professor Aaron Johnson agrees education is vital to overcoming poverty. He says one reason our region's economy is struggling is that technology is replacing the working middle class, and until Southwest Georgia can adapt, the region may have more dark days ahead.

"Until we become more confident in technology, computers and science, especially here in the Southwest Georgia region it'll be difficult to overcome that in the short-term," said Johnson.

Agriculture is unquestionably the biggest industry in Southwest Georgia and the backbone of the economy. But agriculture alone isn't enough to transform a struggling economy.

"More rural areas are going to be earning less than urban areas because you don't have the same level of diversification in industry and engineering type jobs that are more prevalent in urban areas," said Johnson.

Johnson says southwest Georgia leaders need to work to attract more technological jobs to the area.

And DeAvonte Carter says if that happens, he'll be ready.  He's doing all he can to get out of poverty, and he encourages others to get an education in critical areas such as math, science, and technology to help improve their lives and possibly this region.

Strive to Thrive is an initiative sponsored by the Albany Chamber of Commerce and founded in 2009 based on the National Circles Initiative. Strive to Thrive aims to use every available resource to move families into self-sufficiency through peer-to-peer coaching.

It pairs families struggling with poverty with middle and upper class people who have resources and connections that may help them succeed.

It is an initiative sponsored by the Albany Chamber of Commerce and founded in 2009 based on the National Circles Initiative.

From very young age, Janetta Miles, knew there would be a special purpose for her life.

But the everyday struggles of growing up in poverty on the east side of Albany made it difficult for her to imagine anything else. "I use to live on that same street. I use to walk those same roads. I used to wake up and see out on the street, a homeless person lighting up to the pipe outside my window and my kids were right there."

She says her home life was an unstable roller coaster so she took to the streets to find acceptance.  "I'm a nobody. I'm nothing, because that's how we got taught growing up."

Janetta got heavily involved in some of Albany's worst gang activity and never graduate from high school.

And for 10 years, her life would continued down a negative path of crime and poverty.

But in 2010, her life took a turn for the better when she was introduced to Family Literacy Connections and the Strive to Thrive program.

There, Janetta was finally able to get her high school diploma and later became a circle leader for Strive to Thrive.

"It's like a road map. It's like a book to success on how to govern your life, how to lead that productive, how to hold your head up high and say I am somebody."

Janetta says her two allies have been the foundation behind her success. "I thank God for the allies, the support, because I learned growing up it's about the people who you let in your life and it's about staying around the right group."

And today, Courtney Spenser, the proud mother of two is going back to school where she's getting a diploma in Architectural Design and Drafting from Albany Tech - a dream she's had since she was a little girl.

Her allies say she's a shining example of why Strive to Thrive works.   "She's gone through so many different things and it's been like a fuel to her engine to say not only am I not going to allow my past circumstances to determine my future but I am going to help others to move forward and I'm going to inspire others to be the best they can be."

But this is not the final chapter in her book. Janetta says now she will now work with others -- to share her struggle and offer hope for a better tomorrow.

Every Thursday night, a group of people from different backgrounds, races, and financial levels put their differences aside to come together to help each other, and in turn the community. "I was really overwhelmed by what I saw with the struggles that people were having here."

Dawn and Glenn Clack knew they wanted to help but weren't sure how to get personally involved in some of the challenges Albany faces.  "When we found out more about strive 2 thrive, we found out that it was about really making a difference in some one's life, to enter into a relationship with someone."

They are allies for Nakoasha Dillard, a single mother, working two jobs, trying to pull herself out of poverty. "It is just the consistency of the training and the learning process and continuing to build that relationship, to get together weekly is very important."

The weekly meetings gives circle leaders like Dillard, the chance to get together with her allies to discuss overcoming issues to move her closer to her goals and further from poverty.

"Anything from issues they are having with their children, it may be some job opportunity issues, whether they are trying to find employment, it may be housing issues, it may be some financial issues"

The consistent meetings keep them accountable and moving towards their goals. "There is someone there that is looking for them to come in the door, that gives them a pat on the back."

Which is something most of the people sitting in this room aren't accustomed to. "Many of our participants have told us their whole life they were told they would be nothing, that they would never amount to anything, and for once we are saying, you are great, you are going to be able to do great things and we are counting on you, and we will be there with you."

Helping them move forward towards a brighter future. Nakoasha Dillard, mother to three year-old Caden is also an author and soon to be Albany State University graduate.

But her future didn't always look this bright.

"I'm a single parent, I was working two jobs, going to school trying to finish my bachelors and it was just many days where I was just really willing to give up because it seemed like I was working so hard, so hard and not really seeing results at the time."

But once she joined Strive to Thrive, in August 2011 25-year-old Dillard began to see some positive changes.

"There are still days where you have, where you're just like, ok I'm tired, but there are more happy days than sad days.  And it just keeps me to pushing."

Dillard says she gets encouragement from her allies and helpful information through classes on leadership, personal development and finances.  All of which has changed her outlook on life.

"The changing of your mindset, that's the number one key.  If your mindset is still, whereas I'm never going to get out of this situation, I'm never going to do better, I'm stuck in this same rut, then you're really going to be there. But if you get in your mind where you can just change, hey I can push through, it's going to be tough, but I can just push through daily, then that's your first step in getting ahead is your mind."

Dillard plans to do cancer research once she earns her bachelors degree in biology.  And a recent class assignment turned into a published book, called "Surviving College While Raising a Toddler."

She says these accomplishments may not have been possible without Strive to Thrive.  "I would be making it, but I wouldn't have come as far as I've come right now.  I wouldn't be as driven as I am today, without the program and just to have a different array of people in my circle is very encouraging."

Cynthia George is the Co-founder and Chairman of the Board for "Strive to Thrive." She tells how people in SW Georgia step up to the plate to make this program a better program.

It's so important for the community to get behind this because it takes a mindset change for the entire community.

I truly went through a mindset change of feeling like there was so much that I could do to help people get out of poverty and what I realized from the very beginning was that the families themselves had to do the work themselves to get out of poverty. And... that I could be there for them but it's really led by the family in poverty.

They had to be taught how to fish - themselves!

We DO need dollars! Don't get me wrong. We truly do need financial support now more than ever for "Strive to Thrive" and we welcome folks to go and check out our website and help us out with that. But it's also important for people to get involved! The Circle Leaders in this program are surrounded by Allies. People like you and I. You know...you and I, when we need something.. when we need to find out something about getting a loan, or getting a promotion or finding a new job, or whatever - we have those contacts.

Networking! And so the idea is for the Allies to work with the Circle Leaders to help them make those connections that they've not made before. Help them set goals - financial goals and other goals that will get them ahead in life..

Allies - Human capitol is the hardest. You can't buy that and that's something that we're always looking for. People who want to become involved. But there are lots of ways to get involved. We provide a meal weekly for all of our families. We have about 150 people we feed every Thursday night.

We're looking for people to help us with that. We're looking for volunteers to work within that weekly program. We have transportation issues that we need to get the folks to the weekly meetings. There are also opportunities for businesses to get involved. We need to help these Circles folks. These folks need and want to work. And we need employers to help us and businesses in the community to get behind the initiative and help them find jobs.

Of course, we've got the next graduation coming up in December. This will be Number five. And the changes that you've seen in terms of even from those participants reaching back to others behind them.

Part of the initiative is that - we are reciprocal. And our circle leaders, once they get through the whole process, then they themselves, become allies and give back.

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