Supporters of a local poverty program sat captivated as seven individuals graduated from the 20-week, hands-on educational course Thursday evening.

Supporters of a local poverty program sat captivated as seven individuals graduated from the 20-week, hands-on educational course Thursday evening.

The event honoring pilot enrollees of “Getting Ahead in a Just Gettin’-by World,” a collaborative effort of The Salvation Army, The Neighboring 101 Steering Committee and the Bridges Out of Poverty initiative, began with a welcoming of community advocates.

“We’re not here only to celebrate the hard work of the pilot class participants, which is a really big deal,” The Salvation Army’s Capt. Philip Canning explained of the multipurpose event. “We’re also here tonight to celebrate our future story as a community, as we pursue this initiative.”

The packed room of event attendees conversed over dinner before Deborah Price, The Salvation Army Divisional Director of Social Services, detailed program curriculum. She said graduates had executed hard work to build self-confidence and set the stage for life changes.

One of those hard-working graduates is Tiffany Walker, a single mother of two children. She told the audience she once believed poverty would never affect her life. Then, one day, she acknowledged her lack of savings. A pregnant Walker, living month-to-month, sought temporary financial help.

“I came to learn quickly that my perception of public assistance was far from reality,” she said, adding she started to conduct 15 job searches a day. “It seemed like just in a moment I went from trying to decide where to go for dinner to standing in a store, wanting to cry, because I couldn’t buy shampoo and detergent.”

Walker explained the program helped her realize money was not the solution to her problem; only addressing the lack of other resources would result in success.

“The class provided me with a support of individuals who knew about the struggle,” she said. “We all had different stories, but we all had the personal motivation to change our lives. We just needed the tools.”

Walker joined the program to absorb knowledge and change community perception of people on public assistance. Along the way, she realized she was not a failure.

“The system of my plan failed,” she said of her epiphany.

When Walker, in her speech, announced she had recently been offered a full-time position with the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, the room erupted with clapping and cheering.

Kris Steele, executive director at The Education and Employment Ministry, presented the commencement speech.

“I’m here tonight because my faith causes me to believe there is no such thing as a spare Oklahoman,” he said.

Steele addressed graduates with an analogy, pointing out that car windshields are significantly larger than car rearview mirrors.

“What is in front of you is so much more important than what is behind you,” he encouraged.

Presenting certificates was Mayor Wes Mainord, Rep. Justin Wood and Canning. After graduates proudly approached the table to accept their honors, Canning expressed his pride.

“I know this hasn’t been easy,” he said tearfully. “Nobody, and I mean nobody, likes to open the book of their life and have it examined in detail, but you did it.”

He went on to thank the program participants. Canning said the efforts of graduates led to a change in shelter policies and voucher and food distribution methods.

“Bottom line is this - you have made The Salvation Army of Shawnee a more effective and efficient organization,” Canning declared.

He gave reason to the program’s purpose, stating the issue of poverty is more than money and beyond the behavior of an individual.

“As we begin this initiative, we’re redefining what it means to live in poverty,” he said, adding that 11 various resources must be present for success to occur.

Canning said the organization plans to conduct an evaluation of the program, which is likely to return in January. Believing the city has thousands of people who could benefit from the program, he asked Thursday’s attendees to imagine community progress a decade into the future.

“Shawnee wouldn’t be the place where people come because they can get free stuff,” he said. “They’d come to Shawnee because there’s a chance to get ahead.”

Walker attested to the influence of community involvement, both now and looking forward.

“Even in our most powerless times,” she said, “we can be powerful to others.”

To learn more about the program or volunteer opportunities, call 405-275-2243.