Program breaks down barriers to self-sufficiency

ROCHESTER — Volunteers for a local mentoring program strive to provide additional support for the unemployed and the working poor by helping them stay focused on their goals to become self-sufficient.

Focus Plus Mobility Mentoring is a faith-based group that trains volunteers to work with participants of such programs as Action for a Better Community’s Focus on Self-Sufficiency Program (FSSP). ABC has long offered this program, but a federal grant in 2009 provided an opportunity to expand and help more people find ways to overcome barriers to escaping poverty, explained Shawn Futch, a self-sufficiency specialist.

Those barriers include the lack of transportation, a driver’s license and affordable child care once a person finds employment, she said.

"That is one reason some people won’t even look for employment," Futch said of such barriers.

Through FSSP’s soft-skills component, participants enroll in a 10-week program to develop an action plan to address the specific circumstances that will help them climb out of poverty, Futch explained. For some, that may include enrolling in an additional high-school equivalency track or job-training sessions, she said. The participants are referred to the agency by the Department of Social Services, Futch added, but ABC has an open-door policy.

Focus Plus provides one-on-one sessions with volunteer mentors to discuss participants’ personal barriers to financial independence and the steps needed to overcome them, she said. Participants create resumes, practice interviewing and receive business clothing, Futch said. Through FSSP, they also have access to a career coach.

"Ten weeks is not a long time, and you don’t get through all the barriers, but you start the process," Futch said.

Having a mentor during that process has been a key to success for the participants, she said.

"It gives them community support," Futch said.

Kay Sirman of Rochester said that her mentor is "like a friend to me."

Sirman graduated from the program last year. ABC holds a graduation ceremony for each group of participants that completes the 10-week Focus Plus program, Futch said.

"I could sit down and talk with her," Sirman said of her mentor. "Sometimes she gives me advice. She helped me with my goals. She gave me determination."

Her mentor encouraged her to write down her goals, including finding a better job and getting her driver’s license.

"That is another motivation for me," she said. "To get where I want to get: my license, a car and a better job. … "It’s like a plus, plus, plus."

Sirman now works in a temporary position as an office assistant at ABC. Her mentor continues to encourage her to keep checking online for jobs, she explained.

In addition to the personal mentoring, ABC’s self-suffiency program helps the participants build up their self-esteem so they can be successful, she added.

"(The) program gives you the tools to work on yourself," Sirman said. "They don’t do the work for you (though). …. Now I know what I need to do to get where I want to go."

Focus Plus grew out of ABC’s participation in a training by Crittenton Women’s Union in Boston, which offers women in poverty a five-year program for career training or education to become self-sufficient, Futch said.

The mentoring group also trains the volunteers for another program to assist the working poor called Free to Fly, explained John Strazzabosco, a member of Focus Plus Mentoring’s steering committee. Free to Fly teaches people in low-paying jobs about financial literacy and provides access to credit counseling and other support services, said Marcia O’Brien, the program’s cofounder.

O’Brien said Free to Fly combines the Circles model, the Women’s Crittenton model and Birch Community Services of Oregon model. In addition to receiving mentoring and the other support services, the Birch model has participants pay $10 to receive food that is donated and housed in a warehouse, said O’Brien, an associate accounting professor at St. John Fisher College. And the Circles model provides a multifaceted approach to tackling poverty by building on the strengths of existing community organizations, according to information at

"We try not to reinvent the wheel," O’Brien said. "We use best practices wherever you find them and use those."

Best practices also are learned along the way, said Strazzabosco and Futch. Participants and mentors initially were matched following their graduation from ABC’s program, Futch said, but now they are matched at the start.

The biggest challenge is attracting volunteers who are young and people of color, they noted, as most of the current mentors are of retirement age and living outside the city.

But he continues to make presentations at area churches of all faiths, most of which have been responsive, Strazzabosco said.

Mentors also have difficulty not falling into roles of chauffeur or ATM, he added.

"We walk alongside people, not telling people what to do," Futch said.

Jeff Peters, who has been a mentor for both ABC’s FSSP program and Free to Fly, said trying not to solve a participant’s problems is challenging.

"The hardest thing is not to jump in and say, Why don’t you do this, this and this?’" he said. "You have to sit back and think, ‘How can I walk with this person through this process?’ They have to come up with solutions. They have to own them. That’s the hardest part."

But the work is rewarding, he added. He learned about Free to Fly after doing research on poverty and finding out about the Circles USA program and learned of O’Brien’s connection.

Such programs are "all aimed at trying to encourage, motivate, and show the participant how they can stabilize and change their lives, change their behavior and how they think about the world," Peters said.

Whether for Free to Fly or ABC’s Focus Plus, not every mentor wants to be matched up, noted Strazzabosco. Some have helped write grants for ABC, while others have taught high-school equivalency classes or served as tutors.

"Our main goal is for an individual partnership, but we don’t close the doors to anything else," he said.

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