Recently Neighboring 101 program celebrated its 11th graduating class. The latest round of Getting Ahead students were honored with plaques in front of their families, friends and supporters; several boldly took to the podium to pay-it-forward — sharing their stories of struggle and determination.

Recently Neighboring 101 program celebrated its 11th graduating class. The latest round of Getting Ahead students were honored with plaques in front of their families, friends and supporters; several boldly took to the podium to pay-it-forward — sharing their stories of struggle and determination.

Casey Johnson

Growing up in an unreliable environment, Casey Johnson described what her childhood was like.

“There were times me and my mom would leave with the clothes on our backs; we didn't have any money to survive on,” she said. “We would end up staying at shelters.”

She said eventually her mom left her to the state and she ended up staying with her grandmother until she was 15 years old.

“I ended up getting married to my first husband,” she explained, “which ended up in divorce when I was 17.”

A few years later, she said she remarried and had two children.

“My second son was on life support for months,” she said. “He ended up with a lot of developmental problems, and lost total hearing.”

She said she and her oldest son, who was three and a half at the time, were staying at the Ronald McDonald House in Tulsa, going back and forth to the hospital. “My husband at the time was strung out on drugs and wasn't providing any support — any help at all,” she said.

When her son finally made it home from the hospital, she said she ended up leaving her husband, taking her two boys with her back to Shawnee.

“Right after filing for divorce, my ex was in a severe car wreck, which ended up paralyzing his legs from the waist down,” Johnson said. “He is now serving 20 years to life.”

Since then she has been a single mom for nine years, enduring through a lot of trouble along the way.

She said a care wreck left her with two back surgeries and a pending neck surgery, which has rendered her unable to work for the past few years.

“We've made it through the years with my son's disability check,” she said, “and from the grace of God I have managed.”

Last year she said she was introduced to the Getting Ahead class by a friend who was a student.

“I immediately contacted Steve (Palmer) and asked to join the class,” she said. “I was given an opportunity, and I took advantage.”

In the last 20 weeks, Johnson said the class has been a big influence on how she now views her future.

“How that at point in my life of giving up from all the tragedies that I've gone through, I knew I had no choice but to keep pushing,” she said. “This class has really given me the strength and the tools to use to do the pushing I needed to do.”

One of the most important things Johnson said she has learned through the program is, “You can't do life alone.”

Sandi Easley

In Oklahoma, growing up in the middle class as Sandi Easley did was typical for many.

“Most of my life was not exciting, but we did things with the family like boat trips,” she said. “We would go to Lake Tenkiller for the week and go on camping trips.”

She said she and her brother were close and their dad worked in construction.

“We were always provided for,” she explained.

So, later on, when she needed direction and support, she had no idea about agencies that could offer help.

“It wasn't until I became an adult and was rehabbed that I was aware there was help available,” she said.

As a mother of four Easley battled addiction.

“The Getting Ahead class has helped me to learn that there is more out there,” she said. “We were taught to ask questions.”

She said she learned that — depending on what a person needs help with — there are different options in the community.

“When I applied for this class I wasn't working, I had just lost custody of my son Logan who was just a few years old,” she said.

Easley said she eventually got a temporary job through Express (Employment Professionals) in Shawnee.

Finding a job was, at times, a struggle for Easley; she said she almost didn't go through with an interview out of fear that she wouldn't be hired.

But she did; she said the general manager who interviewed her gave her a chance.

“He believed in second chances,' she said.

She has now worked at Cracker Barrel for six months.

“One of the things we discussed in class was stages of pain,” she said. “On a personal level this has applied to me in my addiction. By the time I was in the Getting Ahead class I was in Stage 4.”

She said she's stronger now.

Though her life is not free of difficulty, she has won some battles.

“At this time in my life my addiction is something I do not struggle with at all,” Easley said. “The challenge for me is other people thinking I am going to do that.”

She said she knows that with time she can show that area in her life is no longer something that people need to worry about.

“This class has helped me find resources to better my life,” she said. “I am currently working with Legacy Parenting, going to their classes and learning how to be a better parent.”

She said the Getting Ahead classes have given her inspiration to do better and she knows ther life can be better.

“I just have to work hard every day,” she said.

Easley is currently attending Gateway and working toward getting her son home.

“I learned in this class that I'm not alone,” she said. “Other people have struggles just like mine.”

She said she has learned there are people out there that really want the best for her and are willing to help her succeed.

“I am proud of myself for getting into the Getting Ahead class and I know that I'm going to continue to learn how to get ahead in life in the future,” she said. “I'm excited for myself and my children because I know that our future is bright.”

Neighboring 101

Coordinator Steve Palmer said the program is now into its sixth year — the past five have been led by him.

The mission of the program is to prevent and eliminate poverty.

“Poverty is a misunderstood topic. It’s much more than just a lack of money,” he said. “It’s the extent to which an individual does without resources of any kind.”

Palmer said that poverty also means lack financially, emotionally, spiritually, physically or in support, relationships, role models, knowledge of hidden rules, coping strategies, etc.

Palmer said support for the latest 20-week course was a collaborative effort, mainly through a partnership between two local churches — St. Paul's United Methodist Church and Emmanuel Episcopal Church — along with facilitator Corey Jobson from Wesley United Methodist Church, as well the efforts of many others.

Getting Ahead

After taking part in Bridges Out of Poverty training, Capt. Philip Canning, then-commanding officer of the Salvation Army-Shawnee, brought it to Shawnee.

In 2014, he secured a three-year Avedis grant and chose Palmer to establish and run the program.

The Bridges book is a primary tool or framework behind the Neighboring 101 initiative.

Neighboring 101’s Getting Ahead classes work with individuals who are stuck and don’t know how to move forward, Palmer said.

The (typically 16 to 20) weekly classes are set up to help students look at life –– like an investigator –– and see why they are where they are and how they got this way, and that it’s up to them to determine where they go from there, he said.

Palmer has said the classes have a 60- to 70-percent graduation rate.

Several of the initial graduates of Neighboring 101’s Getting Ahead classes –– led by 2014 graduate Tiffany Walker –– pioneered a second stage, a 12-week course called Blueprints, which serves as an advanced level of continuing education.

Learn more

For more information about Neighboring 101, call Palmer at (405) 481-6313 or email him at

Read the stories of other graduates in a future edition of The Shawnee News-Star.