Meet Bonita Thomas
Bonita Thomas is the coach for Circles West Orange. Based on her lived experience in poverty, her purpose is to “be the change” and truly empower others to do the same. Moving from a Circle Leader, Bonita has become a certified Cost of Poverty Experience and Circle Leader training facilitator. She now uses her voice to bring a spotlight on the racial inequities that plague our communities.
Circles Winter Garden is now Circles West Orange!
The Circles® Campaign is a national, transformational approach to reduce poverty that partners volunteers and community leaders with individuals and families wanting to make the journey out of poverty.
Circle Leaders, individuals with ambition who face barriers that leave them with low incomes, set goals based on their unique needs and skills. Together with supportive volunteers called Circle Allies, they cultivate a friendship across social class and create a plan to achieve economic stability. The Circle Allies, in turn learn about the realities and barriers that exist for families in poverty.
As Circle Leaders make strides toward stability, they work together with the support of the whole Circles Community to raise awareness of their lived experiences as well as identify and eliminate obstacles that perpetuate poverty.
- Circle Leader Training to begin September 20
- Online Ally Training needs to be completed by the end of November 2022
- Matching Activities begin in January 2023
Please join us in “A Conversation with Bill Cowles” on Tuesday, June 14 from 7:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. at 1450 Daniels Road, in Winter Garden.
What is the Circles Initiative?
Circles Weekly Meetings provide the following opportunities:
(1) To grow friendships in which Circle Leaders and Allies can walk together and thereby support and empower each other to reach individual and self-determined goals for becoming more economically stable one family at a time.
(2) To hear presentations from which the entire Circles community, as well as the local community, can learn.
(3) To address systemic obstacles that keep families trapped in poverty. In short, Circles is a model for family stabilization that also supports community transformation.
The Circles® Campaign is a national, transformational approach to reduce poverty that partners volunteers and community leaders with individuals and families wanting to make the journey out of poverty. Visit CirclesUSA.org to learn more about the national movement.
Poverty Solutions Group is the lead organization for Circles Central Florida, which includes Circles West Orange and Circles Orlando. Learn more about PSG at PovertySolutionsGroup.org.
St. Luke’s United Methodist Church is the host organization for Circles West Orange.
What is a Circle Leader?
In our community, even the people with the most ambition and drive can find themselves in tough situations that leave them with limited resources or a low-income. We call these folks Circle Leaders, individuals or families working hard to become financially stable, but struggling to cover all their expenses. And while a Circle Leader may feel stuck, we know that every person has gifts and skills that can flourish with the right amount of support.
Becoming a Circle Leader is a four-step process that involves being open to new perspectives and positive change:
Step 1: Learn about Circles
There are several ways you can learn more about our unique approach to helping families become financially stable and reducing poverty in our community.
Step 2: Complete an Application
Once you have learned what it means to become a Circle Leader, you will need to fill out an application.
Step 3: Participate in an Interview
After reviewing your application, one of our Circles members will contact you to schedule a phone or in-person interview. Our interviews are relaxed and easy. We want to learn more about you and your dreams. And you may ask questions to ensure that the program is a good fit for you.
Step 4: Engage in Training
Complete Circle Leader Training, a twelve-week class which will empower you to become your own problem solver. This training guides you through the process of evaluating and understanding what resources you have and what resources you need to build. You will focus on creating a plan and developing goals and a future story for yourself and your family. The choices are yours to make as you are the expert on your own life. You know if you need help with a budget, more schooling or a better job. You know what gets in your way. The Circles program helps you achieve the dreams you have for your family’s financial well-being.
What is a Circle Ally?
What do you do when you see that many other people have not had the same opportunities as you? You become a Circle Ally and form an intentional friendship with an individual or family working toward economic stability. Circle Allies join Circle Leaders in their quest to have enough resources, relationships and purpose to thrive. Through these new relationships Circle Allies will also increase their own awareness of the complexities of poverty. Circles provides an opportunity to use this developing understanding of poverty to advocate within the community to change the systemic barriers that prevent many from becoming economically stable.
Becoming a Circle Ally is a four-step process that involves being open to increasing one’s understanding of poverty and to personally reflecting on how an individual becomes a friend who empowers and supports the Circle Leader on his or her self-directed journey out of poverty. Here are the steps:
Step 1: Learn about Circles
There are several ways you can learn more about our unique approach to helping families become financially stable and reducing poverty in our community. Info sessions will be held on November 17 and December 7.
Step 2: Complete an Application
Once you have learned what it means to become a Circle Ally, you will need to fill out an application.
Step 3: Participate in an Interview
After reviewing your application, one of our Circles members will contact you to schedule a phone or in-person interview. Our interviews are relaxed and easy. We want to learn more about you and your desire to become involved in Circles. And you may ask questions to ensure that the program is a good fit for you.
Step 4: Engage in Training
Complete online Circle Ally Training, a six session, self-paced training that will help you understand the mission and model of Circles, increase your poverty IQ, learn how to be a successful Ally and know the expectations for this role.
Our Circles Meetings
Location: In-person meetings are at West Orange Church of Christ, which is located at 1450 Daniels Road in Winter Garden, just south of Colonial (near Burger King).
Format: Since the start of the pandemic, we have been meeting almost exclusively via Zoom. While we are returning to some in-person meetings this fall (adhering to CDC guidelines), we anticipate that some of our meetings will be hosted in person, but also accessible via Zoom, and some will still be exclusively on Zoom.
Dinner: Every in-person meeting starts with a FREE meal, and your entire family is always invited!
For the Kiddos: Children are ALWAYS welcome in our Circles community. Childcare is provided for the little ones, while older children and teenagers learn ways they can help break the cycle of generational poverty.
Big View: These meetings address issues that affect the whole community and are open to the public. Circles members work with community leaders and other residents to find solutions to barriers that are keeping people in poverty.
Ally & Leader Support: These meetings provide a space for Leaders and Allies to learn and grow in their respective Circles roles. Allies and Leaders meet in separate groups and share progress, concerns and suggestions related to their Circles role and experience.
Resource Teams: These teams and meetings support the operation of Circles. Volunteers meet to discuss and implement innovative ways to make Circles even better for both Circles members and the surrounding community. See “More Ways to Support Circles” below for more information.
Matched Circles: These nights are relational- and progress-focused for the Circle Leader and their Allies. Leaders and Allies come together in their small groups to discuss updates on personal goals, work on relationship building activities, and address any current or new obstacles.
Community Learning: These educational meetings provide an opportunity for visitors to learn alongside the Circles Community. Community partners, Circles Staff, Circle Leaders and/or Allies share presentations to engage and inform about topics like finances, employment, housing, health, civic engagement, and relationship skills.
Community Building/Family Fun Night: Fifth Tuesdays (about four a year) provide an opportunity to have fun and/or enlighten the entire community. For example, our Teach-A-Skill, Learn-A-Skill night gives members of the Circles Community to teach or learn fun and practical skills at various stations.
Does Circles Work?
The inaugural Circles cohort in Winter Garden officially began their journey in 2014. Since then, seven more cohorts of incredible individuals and families have begun their journey to economic stability through the Circles initiative, and 34 individuals have completed the program.
These Circle Leaders – with the support and friendship of dedicated Allies, volunteers, and staff – have reached significant goals. After 18 months in the program, we see:
- 50% increase in full-time employment
- 81% increase in cash assets
- 31% decrease in non-mortgage debt
- 70-point increase in credit score
- 33% increase in two-year degrees
- 39% decrease in public benefits
- 37% increase in income – and if they stay with their matched Circle for two years, the average increase in income jumps to a whopping 56%!
More Ways to Support Circles
Resource Teams support the operation of Circles, including planning events and meals, recruiting and training Leaders and Allies, tackling “Big View” issues, and more.
Service-Oriented Volunteers offer their special skills to help Circle Leaders. Whether you can fix cars, provide tutoring, repair computers, help with taxes, or provide other assistance, we welcome all skills in our community.
Your tax-deductible donation to Poverty Solutions Group – the lead organization for Circles Central Florida – supports Circles West Orange and the growing movement to end generational poverty in Central Florida.
Circles Financial Programs
Education Grant Program
The Circles Education Grant Program serves to provide a source of financial assistance for Circle Leaders who would like to further their education or gain a certification to enhance their ability to perform at their current job or to qualify for a new job. This may include, but is not limited to, funding for tuition, supplies, materials, tools, certification fees, exam fees, etc. This program is intended to facilitate efforts of the Circle Leaders to increase their employment or ability to be employed so that they can improve their economic stability.
Short-Term Emergency Loan Program
The Circles Short-Term Emergency Loan Program serves to provide a source of interest-free financial assistance for Circles participants when other community resources are unavailable or impractical for the situation. This may include, but is not limited to funding for home maintenance, car repairs, medical expenses not covered by insurance, etc. This program is intended to support Circle Leaders in their efforts to avoid moving into further crisis and a downward spiral, so that they can improve financial stability.
Credit Restoration Loan Program
The Circles Credit Restoration Loan Program serves to provide a source of low interest financial assistance for Circles participants to consolidate debt, improve credit scores and/or access lower interest financing for larger purchases. This program is intended to assist Circle Leaders in acquiring needed goods or services that will increase household income or reduce debt so that they can improve financial stability.
Matched Savings Program
The Matched Savings Program is a financial support program for Circle Leaders. The goal of the program is to provide matched savings funds for Circle Leaders with the intent of helping individuals establish a habit of savings; plan and fund future goals; and create a reserve that will be available for emergencies, holidays, and unexpected expenses.
Bridges out of Poverty – Learn about the dynamics that cause and maintain poverty from the individual to the systemic level. Based on Ruby Payne’s Understanding Poverty bestselling book, Bridges covers the “hidden rules” of class (poverty, middle, and wealthy) and helps people from all walks of life to better understand and communicate with people from a diversity of backgrounds.
Cost of Poverty Experience (C.O.P.E.) – A 90-minute interactive online experience, designed to give your organization a glimpse into the lives of low-income families. Virtual COPE provides an online experience for individuals and organizations to better understand poverty, learn from people making the journey out of poverty, and become a change-maker in their organization.