Improving a Region’s Health and Economy ‘One Family at a Time’

As an executive with the family telecomm business in La Harpe, Kan., David Lee doesn’t have much contact with recovering addicts or petty criminals.

That was the case, at least, until a few months ago. He now spends time in nearby Iola, Kan., with folks who are trying turn to overcome bad choices.

They meet through the Circles program run by Thrive Allen County, a nonprofit working to improve the health and wellness of county residents.

Lee provides his perspective as a middle-class businessman, but it’s a two-way street. He says getting involved in the program has given him a broader perspective and made him a better person.

“I appreciate much more what I have. I appreciate the choices I have made. I appreciate those things, but I also appreciate these people, in that they help me,” Lee said.

Run by Georgia Masterson, Circles is another example of how Thrive has expanded its focus on physical health to the inter-related problems of poverty and low-wage jobs. I wrote last week about how Thrive is taking the lead in county economic development efforts.

Circles is a national program designed to lift people out of poverty, in part by pairing struggling members of the community with people of means.

According to the national office, several Kansas locations run the program. The website lists one site in Missouri in Joplin.

Masterson began her 16-week class in June, and it now has about a dozen participants. She also has a list of nearly 50 people who have expressed interest in mentoring class members.

The type of work Thrive is doing to recruit new businesses to the area is one way to address the financial challenges that contribute to poor health, Masterson said.

As for Circles, she said, “I see it as economic development one family at a time.”

As the curriculum gives participants insight into their own behavior, Lee has come to better understand a former employee of his who was too undependable to keep on staff.

He said Circles attendees learn that, because they often depend on family and friends for survival, doing favors is sometimes more important than showing up for work.

Participants’ positive news might simply be several clean urinalyses in a row, Lee said. It was a real downer for the group, he said, when they learned one participant was in jail for shoplifting.

“This is a way for them to hopefully make some traction to get back on their own two feet and go forward with life,” Lee said. “And there will be some of them that go forward, and there will be some of them, once the class is over and done with, we will never see them again.”

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