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Circles Initiative helps Westmoreland families get out of poverty

| Tuesday, April 30, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

To break the cycle of poverty, a jobless Joanie Holtz of Derry last year turned to a Westmoreland Community Action program that helped her bridge the gap from unemployment to a self-sufficiency by providing her with the information she needed to get a job.

“This program gave me the resources to become a paid caregiver. My biggest fear was that I was going to pass generational poverty onto my (10-year-old) son,” Holtz said on Monday at the Latrobe United Methodist Church during an informational session about the Community Action's Circles Initiative program.

The Circles Initiative program is designed to give low-income families in poverty the tools to turn their life around through 17 weekly sessions. The sessions explore financial issues, use of language, integrity and truthfulness, building relationships and acquiring role models.

“It is aimed at individuals who hope to make that journey out of poverty a permanent one,” said Kate Romano, the Circles Initiative coordinator for Westmoreland Community Action, a Greensburg-based social services organization. The program, part of a national campaign to end poverty through grassroots advocacy, has been operating in the county for about five years, Romano said.

Holtz graduated from the program in Latrobe last year and already has set a long-term goal of opening her own pastry and coffee shop in the Derry or Latrobe areas.

“We want to show them how be independent — how to go from just getting by to self-sufficiency,” Lisa DeLong of Unity, a Westmoreland Community Action Circles coach, told about 30 people that included representatives from social service agencies.

The Rev. Paul Wise, an associate pastor of the Latrobe United Methodist Church, said he had his “eyes opened to the success of the program” while he was an associate pastor of a Jeannette church that helped provide meals for participants in the Circles Initiative program.

Nike Felice, the Latrobe Main Street manager, said there has to be an understanding of the economic side of the problem. Businesses need to make a profit to hire workers to help a society grow.

Those who are looking to become self-sufficient with a job in Westmoreland County will find the economy still struggling to recover from the recession. Unemployment in the county was 7.5 percent in February, based on seasonal hiring factors, with about 14,500 unemployed workers, according to the state's Center for Workforce Information and Analysis.

Part of the program, “Bridges out of Poverty,” focuses on employers to help them understand poverty and break the stereotypes about people struggling with poverty, Romano said.

Westmoreland Community Action also is reaching out to the public, seeking volunteers to give of their time with the Circles Initiative program, to help those participants as they transition from poverty to independence, DeLong said.

“What we need are people to stand next to them, to give them support and guidance and a lending hand,” DeLong said. “We're not asking for financial contributions. We're asking for (a person's) time,” DeLong said.Pam Fisher, a graduate of the Latrobe Circle Initiatives program last year, attested to the importance of those volunteers “to keep us on track.”

“People talk about recovery from drugs and alcohol. Recovery from poverty, it's just as hard,” said Fisher, who landed a job at a Latrobe social service agency and went from living in public housing to owning her own home in a year.

Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-5252 or

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