Bridging the gap – elevating people out of poverty

Courtesy U.S. Department of Health and Human Services This chart depicts the 2020 poverty threshold for families of different sizes in the Images courtesy United States (figures do not include Alaska and Hawaii).

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

reduce poverty.

“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



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