Project RISE is a community support program that joins the Northwest Project under the GRO 2.0 umbrella that Kim McCully-Mobley wrote about in September. Project RISE and the Northwest Project pilot strategies over five years to help families overcome the challenges that have kept them living in poverty and sustain long-term success in emerging from those circumstances.

Aurora is one of two Missouri communities selected last year to participate in the second phase of the Community Foundation of the Ozarks’ Growth in the Rural Ozarks (GRO) economic development program.

Aurora, along with Buffalo, makes up the second round of GRO participants. The two-year initiative is co-funded by local community partners and the Community Foundation of the Ozarks. It is supported by local government, schools and additional stakeholders, as well as the Aurora Area Community Foundation, a CFO affiliate foundation. GRO programming is aimed at promoting job creation, entrepreneurship and economic and workforce development in the rural Ozarks.

Marshfield, Salem and Sarcoxie are currently in the final months as the inaugural three-year GRO cohort.

Project RISE (Reaching Independence through Support and Education) is an ambitious, community-focused, locally run program to address poverty through a two-year program of education (classes) and support. The goal is to help local families step up out of poverty and build a new way of life for themselves and for their children. At Aurora, Project RISE is overseen by GRO 2.0. My role is the Team Lead, with support from a close team of six consisting of Brad Boettler, Nicki Gamet, Martha Youngblood, Christine Forrester, Dianne Baum, Ashley Kennedy, John Paul Lee and Kim McCully-Mobley along with the core GRO team with oversight from Amy Blansit of Springfield’s Northwest Project.

Project RISE emphasizes the practical, coaching families in the small steps toward better financial security and a more comfortable life. The Project RISE team has the responsibility of recruiting the families involved, facilitating the actual training (under tutelage of Amy Blansit of the NW Project in Springfield), organizing the meals, child care, securing the supporters for in-kind services as needed, securing participants as Aurora Connect sponsors, recruiting allies as we educate ourselves to support our families through this two year program.

We are in the process of coaching families in developing and using budgets, in finding expenses they may be able to cut, in affordably improving their nutrition, in parenting, and in healthy-home classes. This is exciting work, as we are already seeing results. Families will be reducing debt, improving credit scores, increasing income, strengthening confidence, and gaining hope for their future. We’ve begun providing personalized financial coaching, beginning with clear comprehensive budgets for each family.

One family looked at their expenses and said, “we can’t afford a storage unit.” They had a garage sale, and now they don’t need one. Another family, living on $1,550 a month, has been struggling to make ends meet. There’s no money for renter's insurance or health insurance -- there’s barely enough to survive. As I considered how we could coach this parent as she addressed her need for a better job, she called for approval to use me as a reference. She has defined her own goal of getting a job that will always give her 40 hours a week. Her other goal is to stop all the driving she’s doing on her current job in order to reduce the cost of gasoline, for which she is not reimbursed.

Another family is finding that it may be a little better off than originally thought. With help spotting ways to control their expenses given their current income, their goal is to move from a daily struggle to thriving as they pay off debt.

We have open and candid conversations in class about the perception of poverty, how class members got into poverty, and how they’re going to get out. With the two-year program, there’s a real hope for them to emerge from poverty and sustain themselves -- and even to thrive -- on a living wage.

What does it mean to thrive? It means:

Having a savings account Bills are paid Living within one’s means Moving to a better job Having better nutrition, if needed Improved credit score Setting goals and continuing to refine them Taking classes to improve skills, if needed Being positively involved in the community

The Project RISE team has begun learning how to work with agencies that might be able to help families reduce high interest rates as they pay off their debt.

We meet weekly at the old Armory basement (the Houn’ Dawg Alumni & Outreach Center is up top at 409 West Locust) with a meal supplied by various churches, banks, groups and individuals. Child care is provided while the adults go to class. In class, students are held accountable to their goals. Some of the concepts and help provided in class include:

Setting priorities for a tax refund Parenting training Tailored resources for reliable and affordable transportation Housing resources for specific needs Assistance enrolling in programs and applying for childcare subsidies Monthly budgeting Building banking relationships Connections with job training and educational opportunities Legal resources Referrals for a variety of other needs, including healthcare and mental healthcare resources

Requirements to join Project RISE:

A family is defined as one adult and at least one dependent Income is less than $50k annually for family of four or more The head of household must have completed high school (or able to complete it within six months) Connected with the community and plan to stay in this community Ready to make a change

How RISE works

We recruit participants and provide incentives in the form of monthly gifts to those regularly engaged. The first phase is referred to as the Circles curriculum, adapted from the Circles® USA leadership tools developed by Move the Mountain Leadership Center. This first phase of Project RISE lasts 16 to 20 weeks.

Once Circles is completed, the families graduate, and we move to the maintenance phase, about 18 months. In maintenance, we support a family via lasting connections within the community through a partnership called Aurora Connect. The family’s partner could be a church, a business, or an individual or family. The partner helps to meet the unmet needs of a family several ways, Aurora Connect partners four times a year as needed. There will be an Ally recruited, who reaching out weekly as a friend. Volunteers are needed weekly to assist with program setup, childcare, or providing a dinner.

During the two-year program, it is common for families to have financial emergencies that, in the past, without a savings account and with a burden of existing debt, would have set them up for failure. By building a habit of living within their means, families often can position themselves for success even in the face of an emergency.

We rely on the following Circles USA concepts as we move forward:

Building relationships will serve as a driving force for our efforts, shaping our goals and methods of alleviating poverty. We are committed to educating others and ourselves on the various facets of poverty in order to create lasting collective mind-set change. We believe building intentional and authentic relationships across economic communities has the potential to inspire and unleash human gifts and assets that can transform neighborhoods and communities. We are committed to engaging families in poverty as persons with unique gifts, leadership qualities, and perspectives that can greatly contribute to communities as they explore solutions to alleviating poverty. We are committed to the process of inspiring, inviting, and re-engaging middle/upper income individuals to help solve the toughest issues facing poverty in America. We are committed to exclusively focusing on lasting, sustainable high impact strategies. We value the leadership of low-income individuals and are committed to providing a forum for them to offer lasting solutions for alleviating poverty. We are committed to the long haul in order to realize lasting transformation.

If you have questions, please feel free to contact anyone mentioned in this article. You can reach me, Marsha Egan, at aumcmarshavolunteer@gmail.com.

We are committed to supporting Aurora as we support those at the poverty level to step up and out of poverty. As we continue to make connections and build relationships with GRO 2.0, we are working on improving quality of life issues for Aurora area residents and improving economic development opportunities on our doorstep. Through Project RISE, we continue to offer resources, hope, support and friendship. Together, we are better. Together, we are ONE TOWN, ONE TEAM, ONE HEARTBEAT.