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WATERLOO | Money matters are not usually a topic for discussion among acquaintances gathering for a meal.

But twice a week, one group gets together to have a conversation about how to get ahead instead of just getting by.

“It turns into one big family. Nobody puts nobody down. Nobody feels like they’re better than anybody else. We’ve still got work to do, but we’ve got weapons now too,” said Avery Norman, a member of the group.

The 17 diners are a part of a pilot program called Getting Ahead in the Cedar Valley. The nine-week course based on the work of poverty expert Ruby Payne aims to help lift people out of poverty.

The tools they'll use are simply agency, determination, strength in numbers and a little practical knowledge.

Halfway through the course, Norman is not alone in praising the program. But he is probably its most vocal advocate.

That’s because without the program, Norman is certain he’d be homeless.

Norman paid rent, but a mix-up led his landlord to say he hadn't. The old Norman would have lost the money and stayed at the Salvation Army. The new Norman, with his agency, made his case and kept his place.

“I can breathe. I can stand up. Before I’d let them run me over,” Norman said. “Without the (program’s) book, I would have been homeless.”

The seeds of the Getting Ahead in the Cedar Valley program germinated about a year ago. A group of activists heard Payne speak at a local event last spring and knew about a United Way Community Needs Assessment from 2013 that concluded poverty is the root cause of many of the community’s human needs.

The Rev. George Karnik, Carole Freking and Tom Marrah recruited a couple of additional members for an advisory board. They secured funding for the pilot program. Now they have a waiting list for the next nine-week course.

The program provides child care and a meal so the participants can spend five hours a week, in two meetings, focused on how to improve their financial situation. There are no teachers; facilitators offer guidance. Participants are not students, but investigators looking into their own financial world and how they can manage it.

That means changes are personal decisions, like when Cindy Ireland decided to shop for better car insurance.

“I think the first week gave me hope, and the second week gave me motivation,” Ireland said. “The second week I changed insurance, and I’m paying less than half the deductible. I don’t know how it works, but it makes you move forward.”

For Merline Causey, the program has led to a job interview, if not yet a job. She and Norman have been utilizing the local Iowa Workforce Development center to learn common computer programs and gain other skills.

Causey said it’s important to make the effort, in part to help dismantle the notion people living in poverty aren’t working to improve their situation.

Participants not only spend 45 hours in the program, they do homework and consult their workbook throughout the week.

They stress the many reasons people fall into poverty. They know better than most how illness, job loss, divorce or escaping abuse can lead to dire financial straits. Many also know they’ve made mistakes along the way.

But for each, it’s important to find that bridge out of poverty the program aims to help them build.

“Just because you’re poor doesn’t mean we don’t have a voice,” said Rachel Oddoye. “My goal is to get from asking for help to giving help as much as I can.”

The advisory board can use all the help it can get. Volunteers are needed to provide meals and child care during the twice-weekly meetings. Mentors can work with graduates of the program to help them implement plans. Donations are welcome through the Community Foundation of Northeast Iowa at

People who want to get involved or who want to participate in the program can email Marrah at or call him at 243-5396.


Political Reporter

Political reporter at the Courier

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