from The Marshall Democrat News
By Eric Crump
Editor's note: This is the last of three stories about those in need in Saline County.
A little more than a year ago, the Ridge family of Marshall was like many who live in poverty. They worked hard but were spinning their wheels.
Michelle and Shawn Ridge lived paycheck to paycheck. They tried to pay their bills but often came up short. They lived in public housing. They didn't own a car. They finally had to get food stamps to feed their four children.
When they enrolled their youngest child in the Headstart program, they met Cherry Merchant of the Missouri Valley Community Action Agency's Circles of Support program. And things began to change.
Now, Michelle Ridge has a better job. She has plans to continue her education. They are renting a house and are thinking about purchasing a home. She and Shawn are becoming politically more aware and active.
"A year has totally changed us," Michelle Ridge said. She gives credit to Merchant for encouraging them to take the steps necessary to turn their lives in a new direction.
"She taught us how to knock barriers down," she said.
And she gives credit to Saline County Circles, a new anti-poverty program sponsored by MVCAA that helps people in poverty by including them in a network of relationships and emphasizes reciprocity, with participants who receive help expected to contribute to the community in return.
"We were kind of leery at first. We thought we would be judged. It was shocking that it didn't happen," she said. "They said, 'We're so proud of you.' It's good to know somebody cares. It gives us the support we need to know we aren't alone."
The whole family participates in the program, Ridge said, attending weekly community meetings and meeting regularly with their allies -- volunteers who serve as mentors as the family works to improve their lives -- one of whom is Chuck Hird of Marshall.
The benefits of the program include some good practical education, according to Ridge. The weekly meetings include guest speakers who provide information on a number of survival skills, like managing household finances and navigating government bureaucracies.
"We didn't know how to save, didn't know how to get a credit report," Ridge said. And they had never established clear goals. "You can't save money unless you have a goal."
But the biggest change that has happened during their participation in Circles is a change of attitude, she said.
Growing self-esteem has enabled Michelle Ridge to begin speaking in public about her experiences. She addressed a rally on the courthouse square in Marshall at the conclusion of the Poverty Walk last summer, something she never dreamed she would be able to do.
And Shawn Ridge voted for the first time in November and is becoming interested in politics and policy, she said.
The main issue Michelle Ridge hopes to address is one that prevents many people from successfully escaping poverty in spite of various programs intended to help them do so.
She calls it the "cliff effect," and her family has had first-hand experience with it.
What happens, she said, is that as families begin to improve the financial situations they often reach thresholds in assistance programs and can be suddenly cut off from assistance before they are fully self-sufficient.
The result in too many cases, she said, is that families find themselves ensnared by government assistance, unable to get enough financial momentum to break free.
Ridge discovered the effect when her income improved enough that her family very nearly lost their food stamp allotment before she made enough money to compensate.
Ridge said she wrote to U.S. Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) about the issue and got a reply from him, and that experience has encouraged her to continue lobbying for change to the system.
Merchant said Ridge's experience exemplifies one of the main goals of the circles program.
"Circles teaches people to be advocates for themselves," Merchant said.
Contact Eric Crump at
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