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Chester County Press

KACS launches Getting Ahead program to assist those experiencing poverty

08/29/2017 12:37PM ● By Richard Gaw
By Richard L. Gaw
Staff Writer

There is a classroom in the Kennett Area Community Service building on West Cedar Street in Kennett Square where, for two-and-a-half hours every week for 16 weeks, a group of individuals whose dreams in life seem at the moment to be unattainable, are both informed and inspired. 
Beginning with its first Getting Ahead class last Fall and now in its second semester, a group of KACS facilitators are helping local residents from all walks of life improve their overall quality of life, giving them the tools and the resources to do so. Launched as a hands-on companion to the national Bridges Out of Poverty initiative created by aha! Process, Inc., the Getting Ahead program at KACS serves to address poverty in the community, and empowers individuals to lift themselves from need to self-sustainability.
Introduced to the United States 15 years ago, Bridges Out of Poverty now counts KACS among its 200 participating agencies in the U.S., Europe, Central America and Canada.
"As an agency, we looked at our data in 2014 and realized that part of our obligation, since we engage people in poverty, was to offer residents a pathway out of poverty," said KACS Executive Director Melanie Weiler. "We began our Bridges Out of Poverty initiative in 2015, largely because of a philosophical approach to poverty reduction and pathway to build a better quality of life for the entire community."
Under the support of a trained facilitator and co-facilitator in a small group environment, Getting Ahead classes enables its students, called "investigators," to examine their own experience of poverty, and encourages them to explore issues that impact their own financial situation -- banking, housing, jobs, and transportation, for instance, and how making changes to each can help them.
Further, each class learns about the 11 resources that they need to embrace, in order to lead themselves to a better quality of life: financial, spiritual, emotional, mental/cognitive, physical, relationships/social structure, knowledge of the hidden rules of class, language,  support systems, integrity/trust and motivation/persistence.
Eight weeks into the class, each investigator does a self-assessment to determine how accessible they are to these resources. For the remainder of the class, facilitators work with the class to sharpen their self-confidence, develop motivation and build trust, while continuing to encourage them to learn about local resource and build their own resources.
From the first class to graduation, the tools are in the hands of the investigators, not the facilitators.
"It's a process of self discovery, the student's journey, and we just walk along with them," Weiler said. "We are not here to tell them how to improve their quality of life, but rather, to bring information to a group of people in a small-group format, in order to help them learn about the four root causes of poverty and, subsequently, the 11 resources available in order to find economic mobility."
The first Getting Ahead class graduated 17 facilitators, and the current class now has a class size of 12. Funding for the program comes largely through private donations, as well as contributions from the Mushroom Festival, the Kennett Run and a recent $6,000 contribution from Kennett Township.
The tendrils of poverty are systemic, frequent and are clashing with inequality and economics like never before. In her 2017 report "Bridges Out of Poverty as an Anti-Poverty Strategy in Kennett Square," Katlyn Uhler, a former emergency assistance case manager at KACS, wrote that while the United States has always struggled with poverty, "we are now in a time when levels of inequality are growing rapidly, and vast swathes of the population are struggling, unable to secure access to basic resources for themselves and their families."
In part, programs like Getting Ahead are not only helping to turn the corner on poverty, but dispelling myths, Uhler wrote. Too often, she wrote, solutions to the poverty problem have been dependent on who or what is blamed, revolving around around three stereotypical beliefs: that the poor are sinful; that the poor are sick; and that the poor are victims of the system. In applauding Bridges Out of Poverty, Uhler wrote that the original ideas that emerged from a 1995 book by Dr. Ruby K. Payne attempt to understand poverty not by just pointing fingers, but through the examination of class environments and opportunities that impact the individuals affected by poverty.
"Bridges Out of Poverty is, in the words of its authors, an initiative, a framework, or a set of of concepts for understanding and addressing poverty through the lens of the economic class," Uhler wrote. "It has been developed into an approach for addressing the causes and effects of poverty at the individual, community and policy levels."
For every investigator at KACS, there is an individual story and set of experiences that led them to this place in his or her life. Some are living in poverty for the first time -- affected by a severe financial setback -- while others are caught in the cycle of generational poverty. On the walls of the Getting Ahead classroom, large sheets of charts and ideas tacked to the wall are written on both English and Spanish. How a person approaches their situation -- and the need to reach out for help -- is largely dependent on his or her situation, Weiler said.
"For an individual who is living two generations or more in poverty, he or she learns to negotiate a system to get resources, but for a person who has never had to ask for help before, he or she doesn't even begin to know how to ask," she said. "Asking for help for the first time is very difficult, but each person, no matter their situation, has told us that they don't want to have to continue to use our services."
Nationwide, the Getting Ahead program is working. The first national report of its outcomes, released in January, showed that the program saw a 62 percent reduction in the use of public
benefits, a 74 percent decrease in total debt, and a 38 percent increase in monthly income.
There is a popular saying in the Bridges Out of Poverty initiative that says, "Significant change does not happen without significant relationships." To date, over 135 community members and 65 professionals in Chester County have participated in KACS' Bridges Out of Poverty class, and several Getting Ahead graduates are now volunteering with KACS and helping to strengthen connections to local resources.
When KACS Emergency Case Manager Lenda Carrillo arrived in the U.S. 19 years ago, she didn't speak English, had no transferable education, and had very few connections, so when she helps facilitates a Getting Ahead class, she said her students remind her that she once was in the same predicament they are.
"They reminded me that at one time, I didn't have a voice," Carrillo said. "I let them finish tell their story, and sometimes, it takes a long time for them to tell me their story. But if I don't, I don't really connect with them. I let them be heard, and then a relationship is made."

Kennett Area Community Service is currently seeking interested participants for its next two Getting Ahead classes. To learn more about the Bridges Out of Poverty initiative and the Getting Ahead program at KACS, contact Melanie Weiler at 610-925-3556, ext. 112, or Amy Scheuren at 610-925-3556, ext. 111.
To learn more about KACS' services, visit

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].