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Circles Guelph Wellington: ‘Turning a light on poverty’

by Olivia Rutt

ARTHUR - The Circles program run out of the Wellington County Learning Centre here is pioneering the first rural initiative of its kind in Canada.

Circles, also offered in Guelph, is developing a program for the rural community in Wellington County.

“I think one of the biggest reasons this program is important is because we need to raise awareness in the community that poverty exists and as a rural area there’s a lot of unique struggles that people who have low incomes face,” said Wellington County Circles coach Megan Despard.

Circles is a partnership program that aims to provide a way out of poverty by matching low-income “leaders” with middle- or upper-income “allies.”

The Getting Ahead program, run by the County of Wellington, “is for people who are low income and are looking to evaluate where they’re at and … also to make a plan to move ahead and to get out of poverty,” said Despard.

It is a three-week program that helps “leaders” create an action plan on how to take steps toward their goals.

On the other side, the Bridges Out of Poverty program is a one-day program run by Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health designed to educate “allies” from middle- or upper-incomes on what it means to live in poverty.

“The Circles program brings these two groups of people together; so it brings people of low-income and people of middle-income together to kind of build relationships and build what we call social capital to really help the low-income people, or the leaders, get the resources and the support they need to work toward their goal,” explained Despard.

Gayle Montgomery, the group’s guest speaker on Dec. 2, is a Circles Canada recruiter and trainer as well as a coordinator for the Circles program in Lambton County.

In 2008, Montgomery asked Lambton County council for a three-year pilot project for the program and received full municipal funding to start the first program in Canada.  

Since then, Circles in Lambton has opened two new groups and have become the national training centre for coaches.  

Three years ago, Wellington County started Circles programs in Guelph and this year added one in Arthur.

“You are pioneers because this is the very first ever small rural circle to be launched. You’re it,” said Montgomery.

She explained she struggled to get a rural circle going in Lambton County - they could find leaders but no allies one time, and vice-versa during a second attempt.

“I know that transportation and some of those issues are challenges for you but I also think that you will have a leg up with the very small caring communities and strong networks that people in small towns … have,” she said to the group.

Montgomery said she wanted to prove to her county that Circles provided an increase in education, increase in earnings and less reliance on social assistance.

She said in 2014, of the 64 “leaders”, 58 per cent were attending or graduated from post-secondary education and 11 leaders had moved into self-sufficiency.

Her team crunched the numbers and found “the cost savings to the municipality for those 11 families who are not reliant on any social supports anymore … is somewhere around $750,000 to $900,000 a year,” she said.

But for Montgomery, she said the “soft changes” - bringing hopefulness, seeing people provide a better future for themselves and their children, better connectedness, less stress and worry - are what motivate her.

Another important motivator is systemic change.

“The bigger we grow the larger our voice becomes,” she explained, adding any changes made will benefit the larger community.

Having middle- and upper-income “allies” help voice their concerns with the frustrations for people trying to move forward out of poverty is also important.  

“In a way, it turns a light on poverty in the community that it is not some little problem over there because people start talking about it,” said Montgomery. “It puts that conversation out in front of everybody and it really builds that bridge between us.”

Circles in Arthur is looking for “allies” to join the group. For more information and how to become and ally, contact Megan Despard at 226-821-0099 or


December 11, 2015


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