BURLINGTON -- "It's not what you know, it's who you know." Can that adage help Vermont families out of poverty? Self-described "social entrepreneur" Hal Colston thinks so.
The Essex Junction resident is best known as the founder of the Good News Garage, a highly successful, 10-year-old service that provides reliable cars for low-income Vermonters. Colston left GNG in 2004 to work as the Diversity Coordinator for the Howard Center for Human Services, and to start Neighborkeepers, a nonprofit with an antipoverty mission similar to that of GNG. Now, instead of helping poor people find cars, Colston is trying to find them a few well-connected friends.
Neighborkeepers seeks to match low-income participants with three volunteer "allies" who are committed to ending poverty. Together, they form what's called a "circle of support" (COS). The circles will meet once a month, and Colston says each ally will spend six to eight hours each month helping participants with one of three areas -- education, economic literacy and social connections.
Colston says this new approach addresses a need that's not being met by the traditional social safety net. "This goes back to the idea of having people in your lives that care about you," he says.
Colston introduced this strategy to local service providers and potential volunteers at a daylong series of talks on January 10. With him was Scott Miller, co-founder and executive director of the Iowa-based Move the Mountain Leadership Center. Miller developed the COS model in 1996, at an Ames organization called Beyond Welfare. Miller's COS approach has since spread to 20 communities nationwide, with another 15 COS projects in the works.
Tuesday night, Miller led an ally information session at the Mercy Connections office in Burlington; the organization is partnering with Colston on the project, along with Champlain College and the City of Burlington. Eleven men and women traveled from as far as Franklin and Washington counties to attend.
Miller explained that the circles work because they counter what he calls "the most horrible thing" about poverty -- isolation. He conducted an exercise to prove his point. Imagine that your house is burning down, he instructed. You're standing outside. Everything you own is going up in smoke. What do you do?
Attendees said they'd call family and friends. "I bet all of you would have people who would be there in an instant," Miller said. But, he continued, what if you had no one nearby to help, no money in the bank, no credit cards to use to get a hotel room? "It's different, isn't it?" he asked.
Miller said that just by meeting with participants, and helping to connect them with friendly faces in the community, "You've changed the equation."
He also talked about the importance of avoiding the "rescuer-victim" dynamic. Allies are discouraged from giving participants money, for example, without the consent of the entire circle. He also stressed the importance of having concrete goals for getting families off government assistance -- participants must make goals and commit to them, and participants must be accountable, Miller stressed.
Afterwards, Pam Greene of Fairfax said she planned to continue her ally training. Greene is the Mentor Coordinator for the Vermont Women's Mentoring Program, which helps women being released from prison for nonviolent offenses. She has worked in social services for three decades. Greene says she's interested partly because of the initiative's voluntary nature. "It's totally different because it's driven by the participant," she says. "It's not like you have to do these behaviors put out by this agency to get your check."
Greene is one of half a dozen allies who have expressed serious interest in the project. Colston is hoping to find two dozen more in the next few months who are willing to make an initial 18-month commitment. The first set of 10 participants starts orientation on January 26.
Colston says what excites him about this program is that it's not really a program. "We're building a community," he says.
To volunteer for Neighborkeepers, visit http://www.neighborkeepers.org  or call 846-7293.