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Circles RVA

Building Community to End Poverty

As the saying goes, It takes a village to raise a child. Darshee Clarke knows this better than most. Born into generational poverty, she has been working her entire life to navigate the complex path out. Her determination is clear: “I have four kids. Failing is not an option for me.”

Darshee is not alone. Statistics show the adult poverty rate for the City of Richmond is about 25 percent, almost double the national average. Poverty levels are especially concentrated in neighborhoods where African Americans and other people of color live. Regrettably, these percentages have not changed significantly over time. Generational poverty takes its toll on families and communities. A comparison of average life expectancy in two neighborhoods – sixty-three years for low-income neighborhoods versus eighty-three years for high-income neighborhoods – testifies to the disparity in quality of life across Richmond. 

Alice speaks at a Circles RVA meeting where leaders and allies announce and celebrate goals attained.

Circles RVA formed two years ago as a response to Richmonders who voiced their personal experiences with poverty. Helen Rai, a Circles coach and social worker, says it became clear that people living with poverty often experience a common challenge: social isolation. “After all, when living in an area of concentrated poverty, the circles or groups of people surrounding you are struggling with the same obstacles you face,” says Rai. 

How do families living in poverty navigate a path forward? Who do they turn to for help if their circles don’t have the necessary resources, knowledge, or connections?

Addressing this kind of social isolation is Circles RVA’s mission: building community to end poverty, believing everyone deserves enough meaning, money, and friendship to thrive. The initiative partners with people like Darshee, who benefit from added support. These individuals, called Circle leaders, are ready, willing, and able to work toward economic security. They are empowered to lead their own path forward while the Circles community provides emotional encouragement, financial tools, and a consistent social network. 

Circles’ crucial social network is comprised of volunteer allies. Allies may or may not have experienced poverty themselves. “They definitely don’t have all of the answers,” says Rai, “but they do have plenty of life experiences to share.” 

These middle- and high-income volunteers bridge the socioeconomic, racial, and other lines that all too often divide communities, as they make an intentional commitment to play the roles of cheerleader and accountability partner for the person in the Circle leader role. 

“This intentional friendship works,” says Rai. “Over time, Circle leaders experience increases in income levels and decreases in debt and public assistance.” 

In essence, the Circles community strives to become the proverbial village to bolster the Circle leader. While leaders and their allies are participating in programming, Circles provides free programs for their children. Parents are effectively freed up to concentrate on their goals. At the same time, their children are gaining similar tools and life lessons through relevant curriculum. This multi-generational approach has the potential to truly break the cycle of poverty. 

As a caregiver to others, Darshee knew she needed her own support system to successfully reach her goals. So when a trusted teacher told her about Circles RVA, she jumped in wholeheartedly. Looking back, she says, “I don’t remember a lot… I just heard ‘get out of poverty’ and that’s all it took. I needed to have a better foundation for my children.”

Alice Herlihy, one of Darshee’s allies, has had a front row seat to Darshee’s accomplishments. “She’s my friend. I admire how she navigates the challenges in her life. I really admire what kind of mother she is and how crazy hard she works. I see her using her strengths to move herself forward, and of course, that’s for her family, too,” says Herlihy, who has participated with Circles RVA for eighteen months. 

According to Rai, Circles RVA is working to harness the power of community mentoring and relationship-building in real time to achieve tangible results. 

“There is no doubt that Darshee will meet her goals,” says Rai. “And the Circles community is excited to walk with her and celebrate each and every milestone.” 


Families Needed to Provide Family Meals 

Maintaining relationships during a global pandemic is a challenge. Circles RVA delivers meals to twenty-one leader families every Tuesday night to maintain a consistent sense of community. Your family can help by preparing or donating meals. 

Contact Kristin Blalock, community coordinator, for details.
Call 804-245-1469 or email kblalock@circlesrva.org.

For more information, visit CirclesRVA.org.

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