By COLLEEN MCCARTHY
A group of over 130 community members representing different faiths, professions, agencies and businesses came together Tuesday to discuss the growing problem of poverty in Starkville and Oktibbeha County.
The first Starkville Bridges Out of Poverty strategies for communities and professionals workshop aimed to expose leaders in the community to a new way of thinking about poverty, a problem that impacts one in three people in Oktibbeha County, and what is needed to solve it.
The program, designed by Phil DeVol, approaches poverty and the issues that surround it not from a middle or upper-class perspective, but rather from the perspective of the people who are actually living it. Organizers have taken the program to communities all over the country, but each community makes the program its own.
Lynn Phillips-Gaines, a local financial planner, has been instrumental in bringing to program to Starkville. She and DeVol held an initial informational meeting for a number of key community members back in June, and now Phillips-Gaines is taking the next steps to get the program instated in various businesses, agencies and groups throughout Starkville.
“When I talk with people and they know I’m doing something with poverty, they usually say back to me the things I used to say,” Phillips-Gaines said. “And so, I just want everybody to have the opportunity to learn the things that I have learned because it has literally changed my life and it’s changed my heart. It’s given me hope that there is something that can be done.”
Tuesday’s workshop was attended by representatives from Mississippi State University, the Oktibbeha County Sheriff’s Department, several charity and non-profit organizations and the local government. The program is designed in such a way that it works best when a variety of groups and organizations work together, develop a common language and redefine the way the community approaches poverty.
“We’ve been talking about approaching our clients in a different way and understanding them and knowing them,” Phillips-Gaines said. “Well, I’d be so happy if the hospital would do a Bridges Out of Poverty so they would understand that the churches would each do it, that the Golden Triangle Planning and Development would do it. It’s critical that these groups go through this so that we’re all speaking the same language and we understand, and we learn that you can’t blame your customer — that if the changes that we hope will take place aren’t happening, it’s not a problem with them, it’s a problem with us.”
A second program, called Getting Ahead in a Just Getting By World, will be set up for those living in poverty. The class will teach participants how to examine the impact of poverty on themselves and their community.
The Bridges and Getting Ahead programs are meant to be used together in a community to truly address poverty as a whole.
“We’re looking at the beginning of October to have our first Getting Ahead in a Just Getting By World. We’ve already got half of the class subscribed,” Phillips-Gaines said. “We’re working very close with Habitat for Humanity and they are helping us bring people together, or helping us get to the people that are in need and that want to learn and make their plans.”
Phillips-Gaines said she hoped the workshop would inspire more people to get involved. A committee of 22 community leaders was assembled in June, but they’ll need a lot of support for the program to succeed and make a difference.
“I think the material being covered at the program is fantastic, and I also think the attendance is fantastic. I think the group of attendees that are here today can make a tremendous difference in aiding those who suffer in poverty in this community to enjoy a better quality of life,” Mayor Parker Wiseman said. “I think a community, in the truest sense of the word, is a place where everybody is invested in each other. I think this program provides a wonderful opportunity for everyone in this community to have some investment in each other’s lives, and that’s ultimately the community we want to be.”
“The salt of the earth, just the people that are here that this resonates with- all of the sudden, it’s not my vision anymore, it’s our vision,” Phillips-Gaines said. “Like we say, it’s not owned by anyone, it’s owned by everybody.”
For more information on how to get involved with the Bridges or Getting Ahead programs, call Lynn Phillips-Gaines at her office at (662) 324-2889.