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Offering an assist in Getting Ahead

Pictured are, from left, the investigators who graduated from the first Invest U class: Joseph Tucker, Ashley Martin, Dawn Jennings, Marangelly Perez, Verna Dickinson, and Raymond Pryce.

Six area residents have become the first graduates of a program aimed at helping people analyze the impacts of poverty on their lives and develop strategies to build their resources for more prosperous lives and to improve our community.

The six – Jamestown residents Verna Dickinson, Ashley Martin, Raymond L. Pryce, and Joseph Tucker; Dawn Jennings of Mayville; and Marangelly Perez, Fredonia – were honored during a ceremony held at Northwest Arena in Jamestown.

They were recognized as the first local graduates of the “Getting Ahead in a Just-Gettin’-By World” curriculum, a 16-week workshop series that supports people with low incomes to build resources and achieve goals on the path to stability.

Getting Ahead participants are called investigators. The course calls on them to explore how poverty affects them, then identify and develop resources that will enable them to get ahead in their lives. The local workshop is called Invest U because, by participating in the curriculum, investigators were investing in a better future for themselves and their families.

Their efforts also will improve their communities. This is because, as part of their coursework, investigators examined how community institutions measure in areas such as the economy, housing, health care, employment, education, and banking. Those stark assessments revealed where our community did not perform well, providing an opportunity for local leaders to address the gaps.

Terri Johnson, The Resource Center’s Director of Employment and Community-Based Services, was one of the people who helped bring the Getting Ahead curriculum to Chautauqua County. Johnson, who also served as a Getting Ahead Facilitator, welcomed people to the graduation ceremony and shared a bit about the hard work the graduates put in.

“Each of the investigators have gone through a step-by-step discovery of themselves, how they got where they are and what it takes to build the life they want,” she said. “They each have also investigated their own world and have identified societal barriers that could be keeping them in poverty. They have investigated the realities of conditions in their community and its impact, the hidden rules of the economic classes, how to build resources and make connections, and ways to deal with change and create stability in their lives. They have learned about debt-to-income ratios, building social capital, established smart goals, and so much more.”

The United Way of Southern Chautauqua County provided a grant that made it possible for Getting Ahead to be offered locally. The United Way’s Executive Director, Amy Rohler, was the keynote speaker at the graduation. She praised the graduates’ commitment to the program and acknowledged that community institutions and traditions can keep people mired in poverty.

Johnson, Rohler and Assemblyman Andy Goodell noted that local leaders decided to bring the Getting Ahead program to Jamestown after hearing a firsthand account of the program’s effectiveness during a 2019 Assembly hearing in Buffalo that addressed poverty. One of the speakers at that hearing discussed the positive impacts the Getting Ahead program had on his life and, later, on his home community of Watertown as a result of his community involvement. After hearing the man’s testimony, Rohler and Johnson were determined to bring Getting Ahead to Chautauqua County.

Goodell cited this unexpected positive outcome of that Assembly hearing on his remarks to graduates.

“So often, life gives you opportunities that you weren’t expecting; information that you weren’t expecting; or an ability to help somebody else or move yourself ahead, that you may not be expecting,” he said. “As you move forward, as you get ahead in life, keep your eyes and ears open. Listen for opportunities to improve yourself and move forward. And know that you are on the right path today, and we are so proud of what you’ve accomplished.”

Most of the graduates also spoke. “In the Getting Ahead class, we learned to build relationships that help us succeed and recognize that money is not the only resource that keeps people stuck in poverty,” Jennings said. Reflecting on what she has had to do in order to survive, Jennings said that by participating in the Getting Ahead curriculum, “Today I can say I’m no longer a survivor, but a warrior.”

She added that the graduates are ready to use their experience and education to improve the community.

“The investigating class of 2021 are all workers,” she said. “We also have a personal experience to know the impact of poverty on our community. We also have ideas that can change the impact of poverty in Chautauqua County. Our research is phenomenal.”

Pryce shared about some of his personal struggles and relayed how his life’s journey led him to pursue his education to become a teacher. Addressing his Invest U classmates, Pryce said, “This journey with you all has made me realize that there’s so many other things that we can do to build up our community.”

Perez noted that she grew up in poverty and said she believes she and her classmates will use what they learned in Invest U to improve their own lives and the lives of others. “I’m hoping that from these classes people realize how important being educated in the knowledge that are as simple as, ‘Don’t buy into poverty’ can help. And it definitely helped me,” she said.

Despite that commitment, she encountered a number of challenges as a single parent. Martin said she learned from the Getting Ahead class that the local community is rich in resources, but not everyone knows about them. She said spreading the word about those resources is an important step in helping people in poverty overcome barriers. “Education is power,” she said.

Johnson noted that one of the goals of Getting Ahead is to make community leaders recognize the program’s benefits and appreciate the work the graduates have put in. Toward that end John Felton, the Chief Executive Officer of the Southern Chautauqua Federal Credit Union, told the graduates that while some lenders won’t loan money to people with a low credit score or poor debt ratio, that his office will provide them with a personal banker to try to help them financially. He added that a low credit score reflects decisions people have made in the past, but that a credit report doesn’t take into account a person’s character.

In addition to Johnson, two other Resource Center employees – Beth Jermain, Support Option Administrator, and CodyAnne Chambers, Employment Facilitator – served as Getting Ahead Facilitators for the inaugural class. Both had praise for the graduates.

Organizers plan to hold the next Getting Ahead class in the fall. For more information, contact Jermain at 483-2344.

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