Four years ago, Jackie Downie and
Donni Toth attended a workshop offering a new approach
to tackling poverty. Robin Clover, executive director of
the Sublette County Sexual Assault and Family Violence
Task Force, hosted the event.
The initial discussion centered on how poverty affects
single women raising children.
“Sublette County itself, at least at that time, was a
fairly wealthy county when you look at it per capita,” said
Downie. “But if you look at individuals, single women
with children have the highest levels of poverty in the
county. That was kind of our beginning.”
The concept behind the workshop came from a book
called “Bridges Out of Poverty” by Phillip E. DeVol,
Terie Dreussi-Smith and Ruby K. Payne, PhD. In 1996,
Dr. Payne, an author and educator, founded a company
called the aha! Process.
The company produces educational literature and
dispatches consultants to train community volunteers to
become facilitators that teach community workshops to
“Bridges out of Poverty” organizations exist across
the U.S. and Canada. Downie, Toth and other locals felt
inspired to start a branch in Sublette County. Two years
ago, they adopted bylaws and are applying for 501(c)(3)
status, Toth said.
Downie is the chairperson for Bridges Out of Poverty
of Sublette County and Toth is the secretary/treasurer.
Funding initially came in the form of grants from BOCES.
The group also hosts fundraisers like the upcoming
“Doggie Fest 2020” this September.
Building bridges – sustainable communities
Bridges out of Poverty follows the saying that it takes
a village to combat poverty. The workshops are geared
toward all community members, not just people living in
“We want people from all walks of life,” said Toth.
The Sublette County board is diverse and includes people
living in poverty, she added.
“We’re all in this as a community,” said Downie. “It’s
everyone together trying to figure out how we support
each other as a community. Building bridges out of
poverty means building bridges everywhere.”
There are “two parts” to the program, Toth explained.
The first is “helping people in the community understand
the culture of poverty,” she said. The second involves
“addressing people living in poverty themselves.”
The facilitators work with a particular segment of the
community. One member of Bridges is working with law
enforcement and criminal justice, Toth said.
Volunteer Sarah Murdock developed workshops
for people living in poverty to help them “identify the
barriers that they’re facing” and find ways to “move out
of poverty,” Toth continued.
Downie plans to teach a course to business people
on how to foster “workplace stability” and “increase
retention, productivity and engagement in entry-level
The program emphasizes building dialogue between
employers and employees to understand and plan ahead
for problems that may come up for people in poverty, such
as childcare, transportation difficulties and relationships.
“Turnover is extremely costly to businesses,” Downie
said. “If you build a positive relationship with your
employees, then you’re much more likely to have them
continue to work for you and reduce turnover.”
Toth is using her background in nursing to organize a
program based around health-care issues.
“One of the challenges in health care is that very often,
people (in poverty) aren’t able or don’t understand the
importance of following through with their treatment,”
she said. “Planning ahead is often a challenge for people
in poverty – like taking preventative measures, getting
their mammogram or going to see the dentist every six
These problems can arise due to inability to pay for
medication and insurance. Another obstacle may be a
breakdown in communication due to the “culture” of
poverty, Toth explained.
Building bridges – communication
Bridges out of Poverty addresses the gaps in
communication that can exist between people from
different economic classes. These are what Toth called
the “hidden rules” of economic class.
Downie provided examples of “hidden rules” from the
workplace stability training supplement she uses for her
workshop. Concepts like food and time are interpreted
differently based on a person’s financial security,
according to the book.
An example is food. People in poverty tend to
emphasize having enough food. Those in the middle focus
on quality while presentation is important to the upper
Where time is concerned, people in poverty make
decisions in the moment based on survival. Those
in the middle tend to base their decisions on future
considerations, while “traditions” and “decorum” govern
time for those with the most financial security.
Downie explained that another hurdle is a tendency for
people in poverty to use a “circular style of explaining
Toth provided an example of someone receiving health
care at a provider’s office. Relationships provide security
for people living in poverty, Toth explained. During a
medical office visit, the entire family might show up –
everyone trying to talk and explain what happened at
“It’s hard to get to the bottom of what the problem
really is,” she said.
A primary goal in Bridges out of Poverty is teaching
people on both sides of the spectrum to understand each
other and communicate effectively.
“We live in our own culture of our particular income
level and we’re not really aware of how other people live
or experience life,” Downie said. “A huge challenge is
communication – how to share this information so that it
reaches people it needs to reach.”
Ultimately, Bridges out of Poverty aims to build
partnerships for a thriving community and emphasizes
people’s resiliency to move into financial stability. This
is where volunteers like Downie and Toth come in.
“One of the things we look at are the strengths of
people that have experienced poverty,” said Downie.
“Because they have quite a few. We look at both sides
and build on strengths that people already have.”
“People are really problem solvers and survivors,” Toth
said. “We build on those characteristics and help them set
goals and mentor them to continue to work toward those