Interview with Michelle Marciniak
Michelle, how did you get started working in the nonprofit sector?
I have a background in retail and first started in the nonprofit sector when I worked for the Girl Scouts as a community coordinator. I excelled at creating relationships through networking. Part of the area I covered was Newaygo County. I enjoyed the Newaygo County area, the community, and how people helped each other. When I saw the opportunity for the Circles Coordinator, I applied and began my work with Circles.
What is Circles and how did it start?
Circles is a program that works to build community to end poverty. We started working on the program in 2016 and launched it in February of 2017. Circles is funded by the Fremont Area Community Foundation because one of their strategic pillars is poverty to prosperity. We are a program of TrueNorth Community Services. Circles USA is the national organization that created the program. There are currently four Circles Chapters in Michigan (Washtenaw, Kent, Ottawa, and Newaygo). We based our initial program off of their curriculum and through a few years of experience, we tweaked our programming to fit our community. We call the new format, “Circles 2.0.”
“The responsibility for both poverty and prosperity rests not only in the hands of
individuals but also in the hands of societies, institutions, and communities.
Reducing poverty is not simply a humanitarian goal — it’s an economic imperative.”
Circles USA Website
How does the program work?
We have 2 program staff and over 80 volunteers to make the program work. Our volunteers have a variety of jobs including facilitators, meal donors, host sites, childcare, and Allies - the people who walk alongside the program participants. We call our program participants Circle Leaders. We also have a Resource Team of colleagues from area nonprofits and agencies who help us provide the right resources to our Circle Leaders.
Tell me more about Circles 2.0.
The goal is for Circle Leaders to increase income, decrease debt and achieve a better quality of life. We do this via relationships that grow during weekly meetings. During the meetings, Circle Leaders hone in on their goals toward self-reliance. Over time, incomes improve, debt and public assistance decrease and valuable relationships and friendships are built.
Our program has four different phases. Circle Leaders can choose to go through these phases. We meet weekly with their entire family. This isn’t a typical lecture situation. We want people really engaged. The program lasts for a year.
We start with everyone in the room having dinner. After dinner, the parents and kids split into two groups. The parents may learn about financial literacy and the kids will participate in an age-appropriate lesson about the same thing. We recognize that families are participating in our program after a long day of school or work and we keep things fun and active.
The first phase is a ten week phase titled ‘Discover: Who are you?’. Through a variety of interactive activities like Tai Chi and art, Circle Leaders discover basic skills while learning about stress management, stereotypes, toxicity and community building. Circle Leaders also work on creating goals toward personal success.
Circle Leaders who choose to move forward to phase two, ‘Believe: Who do you want to be?’ are on a 20 week journey of personal development. Working through and understanding past trauma, focusing on healthy habits and learning how to be an advocate for themselves are focal points of this phase. Engaging activities such as cardio drumming and yoga are included. Additional support is provided to Circle Leaders by way of monthly case management to help with goal barriers and accountability, action steps and referrals. Allies provide Circle Leaders with emotional support and encouragement.
Encouraged to continue to phase three, ‘Achieve: How do you get there?’, Circle Leaders work toward self sufficiency. Employability, financial literacy and civic engagement are the skills that fulfill this phase. These topics are presented through mock elections, an interview fashion show and a service project. Case management and Ally support are continued in this 20 week commitment.
Once a cohort makes it through the three phases, we like to celebrate their hard work and success with a big graduation ceremony. Many of these people didn’t walk across a high school graduation stage, so pre-COVID, we provided this experience for them. July 16th is our next graduation ceremony which will take place virtually. Each graduate talks about their journey during this time.
We are currently offering programming virtually. And we have created ways to make things exciting for them. Every Circle Leader and volunteer will get cupcakes and the graduates will get a special package with notes from volunteers and awards for attendance.
Once a person or family graduates, they join the Circles Community. This keeps them connected, long-term. The Circles Community meetings are led by a facilitator who is a Circle Leader who graduated from the program. This helps keep the friendships going and helps to maintain this commitment to their friends. They still have accountability and growth. The Circles Community meets twice a month and is optional to participants. Our meetings are Thursdays evenings. We now have two groups meeting virtually on the computer.
What changes are you implementing since COVID?
Since COVID, many of our Circle Leaders are struggling mentally, and, due to additional funding support, many of them are not struggling as much. This summer, we dropped off activity baskets for their kids. Parents aren’t used to having kids home constantly and we wanted to help provide some activities.
We recognize people are dealing with social isolation right now so we send out cards to our volunteers and Circle Leaders to encourage them and to let them know we miss them.
We are mindful about what our Circle Leaders need and try to respond to those needs.
How many Circle Leaders have graduated from the program?
We have had approximately 23 people graduate from Circles. Cohort 3 will celebrate the graduation of 3 Circle Leaders next week and Cohort 4 will celebrate with 6 Circle Leaders with their graduation in November. Due to our next group starting virtually, our next group may be smaller than our past cohorts.
How do you know Circles is successful?
We track Circle Leaders’ change in income and debt, their social capital, their use of public assistance, kids’ resiliency (self confidence), and their financial literacy. Once they complete graduation, it means they have made positive strides in getting out of poverty.
I have someone in mind who might benefit from Circles. When does the next Cohort start?
We are currently recruiting our next cohort. We partner with other organizations to recruit people who would be good candidates for the program. We go through an interview process with each person before he or she can attend meetings to make sure they fully know the program expectations. All of the information can be found on our website.
We are currently working on the timeline for the next group. It will start in the fall, perhaps in mid-October. And, it will begin virtually. If anyone knows someone who might be interested, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cohort 1 and 2 Circles families enjoying yoga night.