A local community action group this month is asking Arnold, Lower Burrell and New Kensington residents to take a hard look at poverty and develop a plan to eliminate it in their cities.
Circles, a nationwide campaign aimed at helping people leave poverty behind, will host two programs within the next week -- a screening of an Emmy Award-winning documentary on poverty in America and a session to brainstorm methods for helping downtrodden Alle-Kiski Valley residents to prosper.
Scott McMannis, a Circles community engagement specialist based in New Kensington’s Logans Ferry Presbyterian Church, estimated 5,000 people, or about 15 percent of the Tri-Cities’ population, are living below the poverty line.
“That’s a tremendous amount of potential,” he said.
McMannis said Circles has been working in the 15068 ZIP code for about two years as an offshoot of Westmoreland Community Action, a countywide organization with similar goals.
“We have two emphases,” McMannis said of the Circles campaign. “We work with individuals as they make their journey out of poverty, and we want to bring the whole community together to remove the barriers that hold people in poverty.”
McMannis said they have an individualized 20-week program to help people identify resources, understand their situation and develop a plan for moving out of poverty.
Once people have completed that program, they move into an 18-month program that connects them with mentors.
“When people are in poverty, they are caught up in the moment. They’re only thinking about today, moving from crisis to crisis,” McMannis said. “We help them plan.”
On Friday, Circles will expand the planning to a regional level: The Community Visioning Project will bring together representatives from municipal governments, churches, charities, economic development groups, residents and others to offer their goals and brainstorm ways to make them a reality.
“One of our main purposes is to have a change in the mindset in the community,” McMannis said. “There are two main mindsets: %91We wish it was 1958 and the Mob still ran things’ and %91This is hopeless. We’re a dying community.’
“We want to get people out of those two mindsets and into the mindset of: %91We can have a future,’” he said. “The motto is: The best days for our community are ahead of us and they begin today -- and they begin with me.”
McMannis said participants -- limited at about 75 because of space constraints at Westmoreland County Community College’s New Kensington campus -- will be asked to identify what they see as the community’s biggest assets and problems. They’ll develop potential solutions, which will be ranked into priorities.
“Everyone’s opinions are taken into account,” McMannis said. “Everyone gets a voice.”
John Turack, an economic and community development educator from the Penn State Extension, will facilitate the event. Turack said he got involved through the Westmoreland Economic Development Initiative for Growth, which is helping to host the program.
“We’re looking for ways to find synergy between our different community development groups,” Turack said.
Turack and Julie E. Martin, WEDIG’s executive director, said a partnership with Circles was a natural fit because they have similar goals, just on a different scale.
While Circles primarily is looking to improve the finances of individuals, WEDIG is trying to ensure the whole community prospers.