Open Door Program helps women escape poverty

Denise Cambridge of Columbus says the “Getting Ahead” program at the Open Door Community House is about changing the mind-set of its participants from surviving to thriving.

“It works,” she said.

Cambridge, 32, is a single mother of two who lost her job as an administrative assistant. She is now a full-time student at Columbus Technical College and wants to someday be a counselor working with teens.

She is one of 37 women who have graduated from the 15-week program that helps women understand the causes of poverty and design a personalized plan for getting out of poverty.

“The program is about getting people out of poverty but even if you don’t end up making more money, you benefit,” Cambridge said.

Participants evaluate themselves in a number of areas.

“The women are empowered to take a thorough inventory of their resources,” Meg Olive, family support specialist at Open Door, said. They see what barriers are keeping them from a better life, Olive said, and the goal is to have participants create a unique individual plan that will eventually move their families out of poverty.

“Most of the work for achieving the goal comes after graduation,” Olive said. Students are tracked for a year.

The women, Olive said, are a small part of a larger community who have been told so many times they can’t advance they begin to believe that. Many depend on public assistance and Olive said it is “daunting” to try and leave that comfort zone.

The program, part of a national initiative to end poverty, began here in 2010 and there have been three groups of women.

“We’ve had great success and have seen it make a real difference in the lives of families we serve,” Olive said.

Though there is support from the business community, Olive emphasized, “This is not a job training program.”

It is, Olive said, a ministry.

“We have a lot of volunteer supporters,” Olive said. “It is good for these women to meet people from the middle class.”

Cambridge said she has seen women, who had given up, go back to school because of the program and seen other women get out of a toxic relationship that has been holding them back.

Adrienne Williams, a 33-year-old single mother of three children, lost her job at Aflac but now works as an administrative assistant at Columbus Technical College.

“To me, the program is a great confidence builder,” she said, adding it helped get her life “back on track.”

She said the program “puts people in your corner.”

Women are recruited to the program, most from public housing.

A workbook by Philip E. Devol, “Getting Ahead in a Just-Gettin’ -- By World,” is the guide. It is based on the book “Bridges Out of Poverty” by Ruby K. Payne.

The women sit around a table and hold discussions while Olive acts as facilitator.

There are 11 resources listed in the workbook of which participants grade themselves. “The women can use the resources where they are strong to bring up the areas where they are not,” Olive explained.

The 11 resources are financial, emotional, mental, spiritual, physical, integrity and trust, formal register, support systems, relationships/role models, motivation and persistence, and knowledge of hidden rules.

The book describes formal register as having the vocabulary, language ability and negotiation skills to succeed in a work and/or school environment.

Another resource, mental, is described as having the mental and acquired skills (reading, writing, computing) to deal with daily life. This includes how much education and training a person has in order to compete in the workplace for good paying jobs.

“Learning the hidden rules is a key to getting ahead,” Olive said, speaking of yet another resource.

According to the program, each economic class has hidden rules. Understanding the hidden rules of economic class, the program says, allows a person to choose behaviors that lead to economic security.

For example, one category is called driving force. According to the book, for those in poverty, that term would mean survival, relationship and entertainment while for those in the middle class it would be work and achievement and for those with wealth it would be financial, political and social connections.

Money is another category. According to the workbook, those in poverty see money as something to be used and spent while the middle class sees it as something to be managed and the wealthy see it as something to be conserved and invested.

“It really makes you think,” Cambridge said.

She lived in low-income neighborhoods as a child. Her mother was laid off when Cambridge was in middle school.

To succeed you have to have the right people your corner, Cambridge said.

She brought a bulletin board filled with notes of support to a graduation dinner.

Kim Jenkins, executive director of Open Door, is proud of the program.

“I’ve had women tell me their entire life has been transformed,” Jenkins said.