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Eyes on the future: Circles
First 'Getting Ahead' class graduates
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Ten graduates of the Circles of Central Kansas Get Ahead program shared their stories Thursday night at Great Bend First United Methodist Church. Pictured here: (not in order) Jamie Baldwin, Karen La Pierre, Amanda Bruce, RyAnn Clark, Lee Schwerin, Sam Henke, Shelly Maynard, Richard Buess, Christy Dorsey and Ginny Klitzing. Joining them was Circles Coach Rebecca Lewis-Pankratz. - photo by Veronica Coons/Great Bend Tribune

Thursday night, Circles of Central Kansas, sponsored by Youth Core Ministries of Greeensburg, held the first graduation ceremony of the Barton County Getting Ahead program. Ten graduates were honored. Three shared what they learned over the past six months and shared the goals they’ve set as they begin their new futures.
Circles Coach Rebecca Lewis-Pankratz has moved through the Circles program from Circles Leader to Circles Coach. She shared a personal experience about how early in her journey, the support of one of her allies helped her find the courage to get through an emotionally difficult event.
“An ally is someone who cares with you, prays with you, sets goals with you,” she said. “They aren’t your mentor. They’re just your friend. Poverty is really about isolation and disconnection and we solve it through relationships and connection.”

Leaders, coach share stories
Community members have been key players in getting Circles of Central Kansas off the ground. Lewis-Pankratz recognized Becky Gillette, Barton County Academy Director; Amy Boxberger, Community Corrections Director; and Lenny Maxwell, Pastor of Great Bend First United Methodist Church. Shelly Schneider, Barton County Health Department Administrator, was also recognized.
Gillette, a Circles Coach, admitted she was skeptical at first that the program would deliver. But as interest grew and instead of the anticipated five or six participants, 28 individuals stepped forward wanting to seize the opportunity to emerge from poverty, she said she began to change her mind. Becoming a Circles leader requires a strict commitment to the program, and it’s not something every would-be leader can make happen overnight. While the group was whittled down to 11, interest didn’t decrease.
“When I saw the response of Great Bend and the people who came to the table and said, ‘this is important to us,’ I thought, okay, so maybe there’s something there,” she said. “When we had our first meeting in September, and I met these 11 amazing, brave people who are the vanguards of this whole project, holy cow! I was blown away.”
The first leader to take the stage was Richard Buess. He thanked the sponsors and coaches who helped get the program off the ground, and the volunteers and the community of Barton County for supporting Circles.
“Circles, to me, is like a new outlook on life. They have shown me new ways to communicate with people so I wouldn’t say the wrong things and make the walls come up,” he said. “Granted, most of us are where we are because of a wrong choice or a decision that we made. That doesn’t mean we are bad people. We are not looking for a handout, just a hand up. I don’t want nothing given to me, I just want people to understand me and maybe help me understand my bad choice or mistake, and not rub it in my face.”
Buess said he is a long way from where he should be in life, but now he’s willing to communicate differently and think before he acts. “I know I want to be the same as everyone else, equal,” he said.
Jamie Baldwin shared how Lewis-Pankratz’s story resonated with her. She was inspired by the obstacles she had overcome, and she decided to commit to the program. She echoed Buess’s thoughts on appreciating a helping hand up.
“This program has given me hope for my future, my children’s future, and the futures of generations to come,” she said.
Lee Schwerin was the final graduate to speak. “I go home after every meeting and I talk to my mom, and she’s sitting there she hears and feels the passion in my voice,” he said. Throughout the weeks of the program, it was clear that growing in his ability to communicate effectively and build connections had changed his outlook. “It felt so good to hear that somebody is willing to listen and I thank all of you for opening your ears and wanting to help all of us, and not just worry about themselves and their families.”

Community Support
Debra Factor of Youth Core Ministries shared the success realized in Kiowa County, where the program has been active for the past three years. In that time, 42 people have gone through the Getting Ahead program. Theirs is the smallest community in the nation participating in Circles. So far, they have helped six adults and five children emerge from poverty.
“It takes two to five years average to journey out of poverty in this program,”she said. “Eighty-five percent of our families would say that their lives have stabilized and the chaos has quieted.”
One-day Bridges Out of Poverty training classes are offered from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 27 at the Great Bend Public Library, and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 29, at Great Bend First Christian Church for community members who want to deepen their understanding of poverty. This is a required first step to becoming a Circles Ally. The same training will also be offered on Saturday, Feb. 17, at St. John. The location is yet to be announced.