Seven people graduated May 14 after 15 weeks of classes in Circles of Hope.

They all worked very hard, and several had realized their dream of a living wage job. We at Circles are extremely proud of our success as the latest National Impact Report shows that Circle Leaders in Jackson County have shown an 81 percent increase in income. This means Circle Leaders (those taking a leadership role in working their way out of poverty) have gone from an average salary of $653 a month to $1,886 a month.

The graduates were Arlene and Calbert Christian, T.J. Evans, Tracey Murphy, Mary Schosser, Cassie Stewart and Sherry Walker.

Sierra Womack, our Circles of Hope coach, made the introductions during the graduation program, and Robert Stevens, board member, gave the welcome and spoke about the importance of belief and trust. This was followed with talks by three of our graduates.

Dawn Neatherly, Circles coordinator, told the Circle Leaders that being a part of Circles of Hope was like throwing a pebble into a lake. The first ripple formed a bond with the other Circle Leaders in their cohort. The second ripple was like the bond they formed with Circles, the third ripple was like their bond with the community and the fourth was like their bond with the world. She then introduced the guest graduation speaker, Dana Tucker.

Tucker praised Circles for working to break the cycle of poverty, and she challenged the new graduates to do three things: to give some, share some and spend some. She stressed that she was not talking about money but was speaking of their time and their energy. She urged them to give time to their family and to save some for themselves. She encouraged them to spend time with those who are going to be helping them and to spend time on their education and their dreams. She stressed the importance of spending time loving those who deserve their love and those who do not. She encouraged them to write a letter to folks who have made a difference in their lives, to set up an e-mail account and send their grandchildren e-mails that say “I love you,” and to journal about the good things in their lives and the lessons they have learned. She ended by saying she could not wait to see where the new graduates were going to go.

Sheri Turk presented the certificates of graduation. After the graduation I talked with each graduate in an effort to understand what Circles had meant to them.

The first graduate I interviewed was Cassie Stewart and she was quick to tell me that in the past, when she started something she usually quit. “But not with Circles of Hope!” Cassie told me. “Circles has kept me going! I now am able to manage my money and live on a budget. I am working very hard because I want to show the courts what I am able to do as I want the custody of my daughter to be reversed. I want to get my daughter back. I am applying for jobs and I believe I will be successful because of all I have learned in Circles.”

Mary Schosser told me Circles of Hope is a great program that enriches people’s lives. “It has certainly enriched mine,” she said. “I have met people who I would not have met otherwise and they have been very supportive in all my trials.” Mary is a worker. She works three jobs, 1) at Smoky Mountain Vacation Rentals, 2) with Mary Kay, and 3) cleaning two houses. And on top of these she homeschools her children. “And the best part of all is that I am almost debt free,” she told me.

For some of the Circle Leaders their goal is a better education. For one it is to prove to the courts that she is capable of rearing her daughter. For others it is a living wage job and better housing for their families. Whatever their goal, Circles of Hope Jackson County is doing all we can to help them reach that goal. Amazingly, Circles is the only program of its kind in the county as it is not a hand-out program. Circles is a hand-up program. Circles is an empowering program. It’s restoration versus temporary relief.

Ann Melton is Circles of Hope founder.