Partnering Against Poverty

7:00 A.M. ET Fri, Dec. 2, 2011 | TEMPE, Arizona (UMNS)

Seven people sit on overstuffed sofas in the beige cinderblock room as they wait for a friend.

Casey Squires enters, and her smile ignites the gathering. Her auburn hair shines as she makes her way around the room, hugging and warmly greeting each person.

“Sister” has arrived.

Squires sits and begins to outline a new plan to visit private schools to look at career options, perhaps in medical coding and billing.

“I want a backup plan,” she explains. She is thinking medical coding seems like a “safe” career path.

For the next 30 minutes, Sarah Sanders, the Rev. Rob Rynders, Cara Coleman, Ray Thiry, Erin Burns and Charles Schock pepper Squires with questions about why she wants to look at the schools and whether a career in medical billing suits her.

Inside this room, Squires is safely in the arms of people who have become her closest friends and family over the past year.

This diverse group — two United Methodist pastors, three college students, a lawyer, a manager of a Christian bookstore and two teachers — has met most Monday evenings since last December. Three members are not in their usual places tonight — two have graduated and one cannot get away from his work — but the meeting still goes on.

The usual meeting place is a room next to the Valley Wesley campus ministry office in Tempe First United Methodist ChurchArizona State University surrounds the church and Wesley Foundation on three sides.

Officially this is an Open Table, a program that involves a group of volunteers who help one person or family for one year to break the cycle of poverty. Unofficially, they are a family.

Squires, who had to drop out of the university and go on government-assistance programs for housing and food, has bared her soul to this group. In return, they have solemnly promised to help her become an independent adult capable of managing her life long after the Monday evening conversations have stopped.

Along the way, each member is transformed.

Casey’s cheerleaders

“The currency of the Table is relationships,” said Sanders, who with her husband provides leadership for the Southern Baptist campus ministry at ASU and runs a Christian bookstore. She is soft-spoken and gentle, but she doesn’t hold back her opinions. She admitted to mothering Casey a bit.

“There is time involved, knowledge and networks … but those are things you can find on the Internet. Casey could do that herself. But what she can’t do is create a community of people who are her cheerleaders,” Sanders explained.

This gathering is the result of Rynders’ dream to have the first Open Table at a college. Rynders is the United Methodist campus pastor on the sprawling ASU campus with 70,000-plus students.

Open Table, a nonprofit organization founded by Jon Katov, a member of Paradise Valley (Ariz.) United Methodist Church, brings a group of volunteers together as mentors for people in poverty.

The people selected for Open Table become “sisters” and “brothers.” They often are struggling to make it through a web of government programs or other obstacles that mire them in poverty. They have no connections with people in power. But the volunteers do.

Each member of the Table brings unique personal networks and experiences that can be a lifeboat for those on the margins of society.

Casey’s story

Squires admitted she was in a bad place when her caseworker in the Phoenix government-housing department recommended her for Open Table.

“When I got referred to the Table, I was very depressed, clinically depressed,” Squires recalled. “I was just in a very hopeless, sad, alone place.”

Squires moved from Massachusetts to Arizona in 2008. She had been to Phoenix before on vacation and “fell in love with the place.” It seemed perfect for a fresh start. The climate was great for her health, which among other chronic illnesses includes diabetes.

Her health problems started when she was young. She had juvenile diabetes, which along with being overweight, caused issues with her kidneys and liver. When she was diagnosed with peripheral neuropathy — nerve damage caused from the diabetes — her doctors recommended gastric bypass surgery.

“My doctors thought the bypass would save me from the continued complications and premature death from those issues,” she explained. However, she was told she will continue to deal with the neuropathy for the rest of her life.

She had the surgery in 2005, and complications sent her into a tailspin. In addition to more health problems, it also put her in a financial crisis because she had no medical insurance.

“I made the mistake of using credit cards to pay medical bills,” Squires said. “I ended up having two more surgeries in 2007 not covered under insurance. I was working my butt off to keep my head above water, but I was slowly sinking. At one point, I was paying almost a $1,000 a month for the debt I was incurring.”

On top of that, she was dealing with a lot of grief. Several family members died in a short period including a nephew who was murdered. The death of her mother in 2008, followed a few months later by her aunt, left Squires reeling.

Squires is the youngest member of a large family that includes seven siblings. Her mother, Lillian, had four children, and her father, Joseph, had three children from previous marriages. Squires was their only child together. The unexpected death of her mother had a big impact on her life. One way she wears her grief is a large tattoo on her back: “Daughter of Lillian and Joseph” that has the date of her mother’s death, 03-27-08, spelled out in Hebrew.

“I was just … floundering in the wilderness, doing the best I could to survive,” she said.

Perhaps the most important thing the Table has done is to renew Squires’ self-confidence.

“I had this core belief about myself, that it was all my fault for being in these circumstances. I didn’t take care of my finances or my health,” she said. “They looked through all that superficial stuff and saw the person I was, and that helped to change my belief.”

Who wants to help?

Rynders first heard about Open Table from two United Methodist ASU students in 2008. They were members of Paradise Valley United Methodist, the church that started the program.

About that time, he ran across an article about homeless college students that fueled his interest. But whenever he tried to start the program, people joined and then dropped out as he recruited others — including the two students who in the beginning were so enthusiastic.

“I was ready to throw in the towel,” he remembered. “I was just about to call Jon (Katov) and tell him to forget it.” But he gave it one more try. He posted the article about homeless college students on his Facebook page with the message: “If anyone wants to help, let me know.”

That post got the attention of Ray Thiry, who became co-chair of the Table.

“It was just something Rob had posted on Facebook,” Thiry said. “It was about college students who otherwise were middle class, had grown up middle class and just found themselves not able to make ends meet. There are plenty of avenues for help for homeless, et cetera, but when you have grown up middle class or upper middle class, it becomes very difficult to reach out. I remember when I was in college, I was in a similar situation.”

Rynders was able to pull together the group in December 2010. The first step in the program is “breaking bread,” where all team members and the person in need sit down together for a meal.

“We started the process,” Rynders said. “We spent about an hour in a circle, just going from person to person, talking about why we were there, why we were involved. From there, it has just been amazing.”

Squires was required to “lay everything on the table” about her life. She also had to pass a drug test, a psychological exam and a background check.

“I passed with flying colors. I was surprised; I thought something mental might be there,” she joked. She has a great sense of humor, evidenced by two small tattoos on two fingers that make a handlebar mustache when she holds the fingers to her face.

It was her sense of humor and willingness to listen, learn and work hard that changed the perception of every Table member about who is homeless and in need.

“I have always imagined poverty to look a certain way,” said Thiry, a musician and teacher. “Dirty, living on the street, socially awkward … but it is funny, when I tell anyone about this group, I say, ‘If someone walked in, they would have no idea who was the focus person we are helping.’”

Burns, also a teacher, agreed.

“I remember Ray and (me) talking about it wouldn’t take a lot for a person to get into trouble like Casey did,” she said. “For me personally, if I didn’t have family, I would have been in that situation at one point in my life. It made me realize just how close so many people are to not having everything they need.”

For Coleman, being on the Table was an opportunity to give back for all the love and support she has received in her life. Read Cara Coleman's Blog

“Everyone has something to offer,” she said. “Just being in a relationship is transforming.”

Ekmanis, another student member of the Table, echoes that thought. “To bring it down to this individual level of working with one person and to see the difference that this whole experience has made on their lives is a pretty cool feeling.” Read Indra Ekmanis' blog

Dreams and wishes

In the beginning, the group “plastered the walls” with sheets of paper containing all of Squires’ deepest wants and needs.

“They told me to just dream about where I wanted my life to be in a year. No restrictions; just dream big.”

Some of her dreams included re-enrolling at ASU, getting married and healing broken family relationships.

“They asked me what I wanted to work on first,” Squires said. “I said, ‘My teeth.’”

When she was 23, Squires had to have her upper teeth removed, and she got dentures. She kept her lower teeth and spent thousands of dollars trying to save them. Fillings kept falling out. She lost essential nutrients because of the bypass surgery, which accelerated the decaying of her teeth.

“I was actually living with half of my molar broken, and every few months, I would get another infection,” she explained. “They said the infection was almost to the bone. I needed to do something, but I didn’t have any dental insurance.”

The answer to that problem came from the Rev. Jay Cooper, another United Methodist pastor on the Table, who had just finished a two-year mission trip to Guatemala. Cooper is the founding pastor of Jacob’s Well United Methodist Church.

“Because I worked with doctors and dentists in Guatemala, it just became as super easy as making one phone call to a mission team who found a dentist willing to give her thousands of dollars worth of work for free,” Cooper said.

Squires gets emotional when she talks about the help Cooper, Dr. Anita Elliott and Dr. Leslie Fisher gave her.

“That surgery saved my life,” she said, wiping away tears.

Elliot told her the best option was to remove her remaining teeth and replace them with dentures. She also told her that Fisher, an oral surgeon, would offer his services.

As she sat and listened, Squires remembered, she never thought the dentist was planning to do the work free.

Neither did the Table members. It was a huge celebration for the entire team.

“That was when I knew Open Table was something that was going to work really well. It is just the networking that people in the position like Casey don’t have. People like us can come along and say, ‘Oh, I think I met someone along the way through work or whatever that I think can help,’” Cooper said.

“That is the United Methodist connection. Even in a program like Open Table, the connection works. It’s ‘Who do you know that is a generous person who can help?’ That is what Casey needed the most.”

Little steps, big leaps

Squires has done a lot of the work on her own, volunteer Charles Schock said. “We supported her, but we didn’t solve those problems for her.”

Schock, a lawyer and alumnus of ASU, has been a member of Tempe First United Methodist Church since 1977. He said he didn’t know what Open Table was when Rynders asked him to be a part of the group.

“I just basically took a leap of faith,” he said. The Table has evolved and changed. “There is a synergy on this Table. We kind of found our roles along the way.”

The group really started bonding after a couple of social outings, he said. “We had a picnic one day, and that was fun. Then we went to a spring training baseball game.”

Recently, Squires dropped out of school, got a full-time job and then lost the job because she could not do the manual labor involved. Then she enrolled in community college classes and fell in love. Squires said all of those things occurring in less than a year have been the biggest surprise to her.

Stumbles along the way

Rynders said that with the exception of Squires, the people at the Table are “church folks.” When Squires got the full-time job, she started questioning whether she wanted to continue her plans to get a degree.

“There was a lot of inner struggle on the Table. We asked ourselves, ‘Are we here to help Casey achieve her goals?’ or, ‘Are we here to make her accomplish what we think her goals should be?’

“For two months, it was pretty tense; the family was having issues,” Rynders said. “That was part of the growing process for us as a Table.”

Rynders is determined to clear the path for Squires to get back into school. Squires owes ASU $2,500 in medical withdrawal fees and can’t get advising or enroll in classes until that is repaid.

People of faith

Rynders said that with the exception of Squires, the rest of the Table is “church folks.” They are from different denominations — United Methodist, Southern Baptist, Episcopal and Catholic. Two of the original members — Indra Ekmanis and Joe Canarie — have graduated.

Insisting she share their faith or getting Squires into a church was not on the list of priorities for the Table. “Part of the Table model is you accept the person for who they are and where they are,” Rynders said. “It is providing that grace.”

All of the meetings begin and end with prayer. That is something Squires loves.

“I developed such a respect and admiration for these people, and I loved participating in the prayer and listening to them tell me about their faith and why there were involved in what they were doing,” she said. “I felt absolutely no pressure to convert but felt very accepted and respected, which gave me a deeper faith for people.”

Squires said she wants to give back by someday being on an Open Table herself.

“Casey might not label herself a Christian or person of faith, but we have all seen how God has been at work in her life,” Rynders said.

Amazing journey

Open Table is not an easy task, Rynders continued. Katov said Squires became the rabbi teaching the rest of the group what it is like to free someone.

“That is not an easy thing or a good feeling,” he said. “It rearranges all your molecules, and it hurts sometimes.”

But all the trouble is worth it because of the rewards, Rynders said.

“The possibility to not only change a stranger’s life but (also) to change your own life, to change how you see the world, how you see poverty, to see people who are in need and the work that God does in your heart and in your mind is pretty amazing,” he said.

Schock admits it was tempting on some nights to stay home and watch "Monday Night Football" rather than go to the church for Open Table meetings. “Sometimes God stretches us in ways we are not exactly sure of. Sometimes when you do take that leap and you don’t know exactly where you are leaping, it can be very fulfilling.”

“It sends good ripples through the rest of your ministry about what your priorities are,” Rynders said.

“Everyone has something to offer, and that’s the great thing we have learned,” Coleman added. “We have learned just being in relationship is transforming.”

“A lot of times people don’t want to do the hard work,” Rynders said. “They rather just say, ‘Oh, that’s too hard. There is no way I can help a person who is in a situation like that. I don’t bring anything to the table so I am not going to even try.’ But this just shows if you do try, amazing things will happen.”

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

Gilbert is a multimedia reporter for the young adult content team at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn.

This article was originally posted by UMNS on Dec. 2, 2011, under the title "Program makes room at table for poor," at http://www.umc.org/site/apps/nlnet/content3.aspx?c=lwL4KnN1LtH&b=5259669&ct=11522571. It is reposted here with permission.

 

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