Throughout Johnson County, poverty is growing worse every year.

The percentage of people living under the federal poverty level has nearly doubled in the past decade.

Close to 17,000 people don’t know if or when their next meal will come. County schools found that 630 students were homeless at some point last year.

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Turning those numbers around will require a long-term strategy, and a newly formed group hopes to have that plan in place. Bridges Alliance of Johnson County will bring together resources from throughout the community, guiding people caught in the cycle of poverty to more stable and independent lives.

Johnson County social service organizations, businesses, individuals and religious groups have collaborated to create the poverty-reduction program. Organizers intend to use a blended approach of two nationally recognized anti-poverty programs to impart change locally.

“This is where the rubber meets the road. It’s more than a Band-Aid, it’s not a temporary fix. We want to change lives,” said David Sever, a member of the Bridges Alliance steering committee.

The Bridges Alliance grew out of an multi-year effort by local advocates to better understand poverty in Johnson County, and studies on how to reduce it.

In 2016, leaders of what would become the alliance helped organize a Bridges Out of Poverty workshop led by Philip E. DeVol, an author and consultant for aha! Process, an anti-poverty training company. The workshop was based on a book of the same name written by DeVol, Terie Dreussi-Smith and Ruby Payne, who have all worked on educating people how to relate to and work with the poor.

Payne has been a leader in understanding the mindset of economic classes and hurdles to overcoming poverty. She founded aha! Process to provide resources to communities throughout the country to help improve job retention rates, build a safety net infrastructure and support residents struggling in poverty.

About 150 people took part in the seminar, which challenged participants to dig into the sources and impact of poverty, including discovering the hidden rules and norms that dictate social class.

For those working in social service agencies, it was necessary for the community to have the framework needed to start seriously addressing poverty, Sever said.

A steering committee formed from participants who wanted to learn more about the Bridges Out of Poverty concepts. Organizations such as the United Way of Johnson County, Girls Inc. of Johnson County, the Interchurch Food Pantry, KIC-IT and Purdue Extension joined with religious institutions such as Grace United Methodist Church, SS. Francis & Clare Roman Catholic Church and Union Christian Church.

“If you look at our steering committee and the people who participated in the initial conversation, it lit a fire in a number of us who see individuals every day,” said Carol Phipps, co-manager of the Interchurch Food Pantry and part of the Bridges Alliance steering committee. “We’ve gotten very broad support, because we have people who see this poverty in so many places. What really excites me is, if we can help people and assist them, we can have less people living day-to-day and become self-sufficient.”

During the past year, that group has worked to build a program that would work for Johnson County.

Some of the concepts are inspired by Bridges Out of Poverty. The core of the program is understanding how those dealing with poverty think on a day-to-day basis.

In order to successfully reduce poverty, communities need to understand how those dealing with the issue think on a day-to-day basis, Sever said. Payne’s research has shown that people in poverty approach life in entirely different ways.

For example, those in poverty are more focused on immediacy — using the money they do have to take care of needs right now — instead of saving or planning for the future. The poor are more concerned about getting enough food to survive than taste, nutrition or appearance, Sever said.

At the same time, Bridges Alliance also worked with a group called Circles USA. The organization, which has helped spread the anti-poverty model in more than 70 communities throughout the U.S., works to reduce the number of people struggling through peer-to-peer counseling, goal setting and other assistance.

The Circles model is centered around Circle Leaders, the individuals and families who want to move out of poverty. They are the ones who are tired of the status quo and are desperate for a way to not just get ahead for a few weeks or months, but long-term, Phipps said.

“We’re trying to break the poverty cycle, particularly for individuals who are in generational poverty,” she said. “It’s not easy to break out of generational poverty, and in the Circle Leader training, we’ll be arming them with tools, to help them assess their own situation and learn to set goals and begin reaching those goals. We want to put them on a path.”

Those people are matched with people known as Circle Allies — volunteers who collaborate with Circle Leaders as they work towards economic stability.

The goal is for Circle Leaders to eventually become examples and support for others in poverty.

Johnson County will be using a combination of both Bridges Out of Poverty and Circles USA concepts, Phipps said. Both programs have shown to impact communities.

The YWCA North Central Indiana, located in South Bend, implemented the program in 2006. The 58 participants were tracked over the course of one year. In that time, 84 percent of the participants indicated having a higher income, 69 percent were able to get more education and 63 percent had full-time, self-sufficient employment.

Circles USA showed similar success. In 2016, people who were enrolled as Circle Leaders reported an increase of average monthly income of 50 percent over the course of one year, from $683 when they enrolled to $1,208 after 12 months.

“We think we can use these same concepts to help us,” Phipps said.

Bridges Alliance of Johnson County has started fundraising and securing grants to help support its activities, including a $10,000 grant from the Johnson County Community Foundation to start training.

Phipps and Karol Dougherty, another member of the Bridges Alliance steering committee, are currently being educated through Circles Indianapolis to eventually train Circle Leaders in Johnson County.

The goal is to start training people in early 2018, aiming to sign up 12 families or individuals initially. They will go through a 14-week session, where they will be encouraged to lay out a plan and establish goals of what they want to achieve to break out of poverty.

Once they graduate, they’ll be paired with Circle Allies, who will help support them as they work to achieve those goals — for example, giving advice on résumés and job interviews, get assistance finding job training or locating affordable housing.

“The beauty of the Circles model is, the under-resourced person who really wants to learn self-sufficiency comes in and learns skills, they learn about themselves, about the hidden rules of class,” said Marie Wiese, director of Circles Indy. “Then they are partnered with volunteers who come alongside them as allies. They don’t fix them, they’re in a relationship with them.”

At the same time, the Circle Leaders will be critical in joining the discussion with other civic and community officials about continuing to address poverty.

“We want to use the knowledge of those who have experienced these obstacles, using their knowledge to help us learn so that together we can identify and begin to approach some of these issues,” Phipps said.

Organizers have a foundation for their plan in place, but still require help from the community to make it successful. People are needed to serve as Allies to those in poverty, as well as to volunteer for jobs such as helping with childcare during meetings, providing food or tracking progress.

Facilitators trained through Bridges Out of Poverty have spoken with different community organizations, sharing a brief snippet of the program to help people better understand poverty. The hope is to recruit members to help financially support the effort moving forward.

“We are building this as we go. We’re laying a lot of groundwork, and we think we know where we’re going, with lots of good support and resources available to us,” Sever said.

At a glance

Bridges Alliance of Johnson County

What: A collaborative effort of businesses, agencies, churches and individual residents aiming to reduce and end poverty in the county.

How does it work: Individuals and families who want to break the cycle of poverty will take a 14-week course, where they’re learn techniques and approaches to better their lives. Afterwards, they will be paired with an Ally, who will provide support and resources as they work to meet the financial, employment, education and other goals that they’ve set.

Steering organizations:

  • Grace United Methodist Church
  • United Way of Johnson County
  • Purdue Extension
  • St. Thomas Clinic
  • KIC-IT
  • No Place to Call Home
  • Girls Inc. of Johnson County
  • SS. Francis and Clare Roman Catholic Church
  • Union Christian Church
  • Interchurch Food Pantry

Supporting organizations

  • Johnson County Sheriff’s Office
  • Johnson County Community Foundation
  • HomeBank
  • Amity Baptist Church
  • St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church and School
  • First Baptist Church of Greenwood

How to help

Membership: The Bridges Alliance is looking for members, whose financial contributions will help sustain the effort long-term.

Suggested annual giving levels include

  • $50: Individual
  • $75: Couple
  • $250: Small organization or church
  • $500: Large organization or church
  • $1,000 or more: Mega organization or church

Checks may be mailed to Johnson County Community Foundation, PO Box 217, Franklin, IN 46131. Indicate “Bridges Alliance” in the check memo.

Volunteer: Community members are also needed to donate their time to support the effort. Volunteer opportunities range from becoming an Ally to support those in poverty to helping provide food, transportation or child care during meetings.

For more information on the effort, becoming a member or volunteering, go to or call 317-667-3332.

Author photo
Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at or 317-736-2727.