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Program aims to help those in poverty

According to the Oklahoma Policy Institute, 16 percent of Oklahomans were living below the federal poverty line in 2016. The poverty rate in Comanche County is 4 to 5 percent above that state average, according to Debra Johnson, poverty initiatives coordinator for the Salvation Army.

The Salvation Army is hoping to make a dent in those numbers.

Johnson oversees the Bridges Out of Poverty Program, an initiative of the Salvation Army that provides training strategies for members of the community so that they may better serve individuals living in poverty. 

The Bridges Program oversees the Getting Ahead Class, a 20-week course targeted at residents of Comanche County who are living at or below the poverty line, and Johnson is seeking applicants for the 2018 course.

"It's set up like a kitchen table environment; we bring in participants and they are called investigators," Johnson said.

The student investigators then spend their time talking among themselves, helped by a program facilitator, in which they discuss the problems, shortfalls and resources they have discovered. 

"It's an open forum for these individuals to discuss the things they've encountered and various agencies they've gone to, and the barriers they've found," Johnson said. "That's why the investigation term is so important, because they can bring that back as an important piece for addressing the poverty issues in our area."

While the program focuses mainly on generational poverty, it also addresses situational poverty, which Johnson understands firsthand. Her own experiences inspired her to apply for her current position as poverty initiatives coordinator. 

Though this is Johnson's first time recruiting for the Getting Ahead class, it marks the fourth time the course will be presented locally. 

"For the three previous years we had a 75.4 percent graduation rate, and most programs for individuals in poverty are around 25 to 30 percent," Johnson said.

She attributes the program's high graduation rate to its communal, more personal environment.

"It's not a classroom type atmosphere where individuals feel like they're being told how to change their life. There is more involvement."

Johnson's role is to make sure all of the pieces fall into place so the student investigators can attend class without too much worry. 

The program will include free child care and transportation, as well as a family meal before class.

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