Strive2Thrive graduates new success stories

Charlene Glover, pastor of The Trumpet of God Ministries, was guest speaker for the Strive2Thrive graduation ceremony Thursday.

Charlene Glover, pastor of The Trumpet of God Ministries, was guest speaker for the Strive2Thrive graduation ceremony Thursday.

ALBANY, Ga. -- For the the first time since its inception, Strive2Thrive has seen families graduate its entire poverty-fighting program. The seven dedicated families were honored in a special graduation ceremony at Porterfield United Methodist Church on Thursday.

According to Strive2Thrive program director Ausha Jackson, while all program participants must complete an initial 16-week course entitled "Getting Ahead in a Just Getting by World," which addresses basic poverty, Thursday's families went the full distance.

"We've had graduations before and used the term interchangeably," Jackson said. "But these are the 'real' graduates. They're 100 percent self-sufficient."

Following completion of the "Getting Ahead" program, participants have an opportunity to become "circle leaders" and be matched with 2-4 "allies," or volunteers, who offer ongoing support as the leaders begin achieving their goals.

Strive2Thrive offers additional personal support as well as a 16-week course in professional development. There is also an eight-week financial literacy series developed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to educate participants on topics such as credit scoring and predatory lending practices.

According to its 2012 annual report, after 18 months with the program, income of Strive2Thrive participants increased nearly 70 percent.

"I'd like to open my own architectural firm," said Janet Miles, one of the original Albany circle leaders. "I've been interested in it since I had a drafting class in high school. The learning that's been available in all the different training classes has really been a big help."

Miles has nearly obtained her drafting and design diploma and will continue work toward her associate's degree at Albany Technical College in the fall.

Strive2Thrive was co-founded by Albany businesswoman Cynthia George and former educator and Superintendent of Doughty County Schools John Culbreath in response to the area's exceedingly high poverty rate. The program, an arm of the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce, now has more than 50 community partners and supporters -- from restaurants to service organizations, media, churches, car lots and candy companies.

Shanika Owens, 28, was dressed and ready for the night she started working toward two years ago.

"It's been wonderful support," Owens said. "It feels so good. This is the first time in a long time I've completed something in my life. My finances are so much better, and I even have a car."

Owens said the whole experience was "almost like a breeze" for her since she had done a lot of the poverty-fighting research on her own with Strive2Thrive facilitators confirming her results.

Even Scott Miller, founder and CEO of Circles USA, was on hand to close the milestone celebration. Circles USA is the organization on which Strive2Thrive and some 75 similar initiatives in 24 states are based.

"I used to work in a really large anti-poverty agency, and one day we all sat down and surrendered," Miller said. "We decided there was just no way we were going to get these folks out of poverty on our own. We were going to have to get the communities more involved. We had 58 institutions in collaboration to deal with the problem, and we couldn't even move the needle."

Miller said his group then investigated what it would take to get people directly involved with families in poverty and to give the informal support that would compliment all the programs.

"We discovered that volunteers could do things that none of the institutions were set up to do," Miller said.

Patty Berry, another of the graduates, said she'd "gone through a battle, gone over the hill and now was back at the top." She said she was tempted to give the program up just once, but her support team wouldn't let her.

"That's what's so unique about this," Berry said. "Everybody wants to help you pull the wagon."

Berry said she comes from an educated family but was taken financial advantage of by a man she met online. Now she has a job again and a car. She plans to open her own herb shop when she can.

Speaking at the Strive2Thrive graduation was Charlene Glover, pastor of The Trumpet of God Ministries on Pine Avenue. On stage before a row of seven super-sized portraits of the graduating class, Glover elaborated on six C's: choices, character, courage, caring, commitment and connection.