The Circles program to break the cycle of poverty was started in Stafford County

A way out of poverty. That's the goal of the Circles program in Stafford County that opened for business this week.

It takes money to get the Circles program started and Stafford County Circles has $30,000 in pledges or cash donations of the proposed $59,000 budget so they are going to start the program, said Sheryl White, development coordinator for Stafford County Circles.

Tentative start up dates are Sept. 13 in Stafford and Oct. 2 in St. John.

White announced the start up at a special meeting Sunday, Aug. 20 at the Oddfellows Hall in St. John. About 200 attended the meeting that included a full pulled pork meal, a comedy skit on baking biscuits by Virginia Russell with some help from Rep. Greg Lewis and Anna Minnis plus guest speaker Rebeca Lewis-Lewis-Pankratz who shared her personal journey through poverty and how Circles in McPherson helped her break free.

Lewis-Pankratz' mother was also in poverty and had addiction issues. At age 15, Lewis-Pankratz moved out and got a mobile home and at age 16 told the school she wanted to drop out. She got involved with a man three years older than her who abused her. She became became an addict.

At age 29 she was pregnant with her first child and was homeless. She eventually had two more children and two more failed relationships. Her next mobile home had holes in the floor, the ceiling leaked and the front door wouldn't close.

Then a change came that gave her life a new direction. She attended the First United Methodist Church in McPherson and the secretary gave her a Circles pamphlet on how to get out of poverty. She went to the meetings and took the kids and got a family style meal. It was very uncomfortable for her.

"I was terrified. I was ashamed and thought I would be scorned," Lewis-Pankratz said.

But the people invited her and her children in. They disarmed her fear and empowered her, Lewis-Pankratz said.

She left the meeting and thanked God. She finally had hope at age 37. She got a job, but she had a long way to go. She knew how to deal with poverty but didn't know how to prevent it. She was taking college classes and had 17 incompletes and wanted to stop. But with encouragement from an ally, a person in the Circles Program, she talked to her professors, completed the classes and got her degree.

She got a job and her pastor hired her for outreach ministries. She got a job with ESSDAK and became a director for 10 centers in Kansas.

On Jan. 1, 2004, Lewis-Pankratz and her boys officially crossed the poverty threshold. Just a month later, her mother did the same.

During her time in Circles, 31 adults with 36 children moved out of poverty. Of those 31 adults, their combined yearly income when they started was $400,000. Now those same people bring in $1.4 million.

Greensburg has a circles program and they recently had their fourth person break out of poverty. With hope, love and support, the same thing can happen in Stafford County, Lewis-Pankratz said.

Circles provides low income individuals (Circle Leaders) and their families with allies (community volunteers) that help them identify barriers, create solutions and find financial ways out of poverty and as well as become friends that supply emotional support and help the Circle Leaders achieve a better quality of life.

Circle Leaders are matched with two to three allies based on interests and family goals. They meet once a month with a goal of moving the family to 200 percent above the poverty level. Circle Leader training is a free 20 week course. Meetings are Monday evenings with a meal at 5:30 p.m. and class at 6 p.m. at the St. John United Methodist Church. Contact St. John Coach Teresa Miller at 620-546-4920.

About 17 percent of Stafford County falls below the poverty line that is $23,850 for a family of four.

Circles of Stafford County is sponsored by Youth Core Ministries. Teresa Miller is the St. John coach and Heather Garcia is the Stafford coach. Contact 620-723-2727 for Youth Care Ministries or go to White can be reached at 620-672-1596 or

Donations and volunteers are needed to make Circles successful.