Volunteers and potential participants gathered for dinner at the Children’s Center on Hilton Head Island in October to learn more about Circles, a new program of the Deep Well Project, designed to help families achieve financial stability. PHOTOS COURTESY DEEP WELL

The Deep Well Project, founded on Hilton Head Island in 1973, is about to take a huge leap forward. For almost 50 years, Deep Well has addressed basic needs by helping in emergency situations – giving an immediate hand up so families can continue to help themselves. It could be a rent payment between jobs or food for the family when the cupboard runs bare and cash has run out.  

Over the past few years, the board of directors has been exploring how to help families in cyclical poverty who continue to rely on supplemental help to feed their families. They want to teach them to fish, as the saying goes, rather than simply giving them a fish.

“We are on the precipice of something magical,” said Sandy Gillis, executive director. 

This January, Deep Well will launch a new program called Circles, a national program with a 20-year proven track record, to empower families to increase their income level, lead their families to financial stability and provide better opportunities for their children. 

Participants, called Circle Leaders, will work with volunteers, called Allies, who are community members with higher income levels. These two groups will build relationships and work together long term to help those struggling to stay on track.

“The launch will be the finish line of extensive research and preparation,” Gillis said, “but it’s also the starting line for Circles.” 

Deep Well is still gathering volunteers and seeking referrals for program participants. Gillis said it is hoped that the initial class will be five to 15 families. Graduation occurs when a family’s income reaches 200% of the federal poverty level.

Shavonne Vasquez has 15 years of experience in social work and recently relocated from upper New York to manage the Circles Chapter at Deep Well. 

“Poverty looks very different in each case,” Vasquez said. “With no safety net, a minor bump in the road can be a catastrophic event.” She is excited and eager to engage family members to “become better versions of themselves, to build themselves and to create opportunities for their children.” 

Based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the Circles program operates in 23 states with 80 chapters. 

Participants gain training on how to budget and save money. But what sets this program apart from other financial stability programs is its focus on building social capital, starting with the program volunteers.

While middle-income families enjoy networks of support through their workplaces, schools, neighborhoods and churches, families living in poverty rarely develop such networks. In Circles, these financially struggling families find peers who are also hardworking and motivated to become financially stable. And this peer support is supplemented with encouragement from middle- and upper-income volunteers who are eager to come alongside them. 

This program is unique because one component is a child empowerment program, Vasquez said. 

“Children have their own program with its own curriculum that will help with communication skills, practicing assertion to deal with bullies for example, and learning to speak up and find their voices,” Vasquez said.

When support forms around a family, questions are asked, advice is offered, a network of contacts is shared, and the barriers that keep people in poverty start to disappear. With middle- and upper-income friends who have landed jobs, negotiated a lease, or managed credit card debt, those in crisis are more equipped and more confident when it comes to finding a job, asking for a raise, securing housing or restructuring their debt.

In addition to these supportive relationships, Circles also leverages the resources in a given community to help move a family out of poverty and off public assistance. Every Circles location has volunteer resource teams that link participants to existing community services, jobs and educational programs. 

Circles also hosts occasional meetings with community leaders to draw attention to social service gaps or obstacles in the system that are inadvertently keeping people in poverty. 

“This is the Big View Team and will include elected officials, decision-makers, leaders who have power and have a voice as well as access to the ears of other leaders,” Vasquez said. “We will report trends, celebrate successes, and learn about what’s happening in our community.”

For more information about Circles Hilton Head Island, email Circles@deepwellproject.org or visit deepwellproject.org/circles-hhi.

Edwina Hoyle is a freelance writer in Bluffton.