04/10/2014 06:49 pm ET Updated Jun 10, 2014

Bridging the Gap From Poverty to Independence

Forty years ago, National Volunteer Week was created to inspire more Americans to engage in service with their communities. Have we made much progress in eradicating poverty and its impact on families in four decades? To what end do we volunteer? Do our actions create long-lasting change for families and our communities?

There are definitely more volunteers. We have hundreds of college students on our campus who serve in Adams County, PA, helping to address myriad challenges, including homelessness, hunger, poverty, literacy, the elderly, environmental and food justice and more.

Two things have not changed. The image of the poor continues to be skewed, and the system by which families try to climb out of poverty remains broken.

But lessons have been learned. Let me illustrate these broken system problems with a real story of a family that I know is common in every town and city in America, and how this family advanced with the help of organized, strategic community support.

Diane has two sons and she used to earn $7.25 an hour as a clerk in a food store. Government assistance paid for housing, food, child care and medical insurance. After taxes and transportation costs to and from work, Diane had $20 per month extra to pay for clothes, personal hygiene products, phone, school supplies -- you get the picture.

When Diane earns a $1 raise, she increases her income, but her benefits and overall spending power start to slide. At each pay raise, she loses more assistance. She could essentially triple her income to $20.25 an hour, and have the same spending power she started with. But her worries would not be over. If she earns $21.25 an hour, she would lose her final benefit -- child care support. Her bottom line is she needs to make $22.25 an hour to make ends meet for the most basic of needs without any government assistance.

As hard-working as Diane is, how long do you think it will take for her to reach this income level -- how long before she can actually bridge the financial gaps as she works toward self-sufficiency?

This is why we need thoughtful, intentional volunteers. While material support is often needed--serving hot meals, providing donated clothing -- traditional notions of "volunteering" should be reconsidered.

Diane joined the Circles Initiative, an Adams County program that supports individuals and families while trying to work out of poverty. Diane became a Circle Leader, one of many who are working hard and playing by the rules, but are stuck.

Initially, Circle Leaders spend six months learning about their poverty and the system that keeps them impoverished. They assess their situation and create a plan to work out of poverty. These plans identify concrete steps such as achieving a higher level of education, prioritizing personal spending to meet long-term goals, and advocating for promotions they earn at work.

Circle Leaders meet weekly, and this support includes reporting on plan progress, holding each other accountable and celebrating achievements. They also help each other meet daily needs, like rides for children to after-school activities or sharing information about community resources that have worked well.

After this, Circle Leaders are matched with two to four volunteers, or Allies, who provide additional support as they move out of poverty. The support is emotional, but it also includes concrete access to resources for finding and obtaining scholarships and other aid for higher education or job training. Allies might also make connections with and for their Leaders for new employment, better housing or access to affordable home or auto repair providers.

Allies also give Circle Leaders opportunities to share their stories with other community groups, which can lead to more local solutions. For example, such sharing by a panel of Circle Leaders led to the creation of Healthy Options, a program for families to access fresh, healthy foods, while supporting the local economy by shopping at farmers' markets.

With focused, personally defined plans and support of Allies, Leaders like Diane achieve self-sufficiency. Diane did so by completing additional education with scholarship support, advocating for and achieving promotion to a management position and improving her credit, making it possible to purchase her own home.

There will always be a need for volunteers to meet immediate and real needs, like food, clothing and shelter. But to create lasting, positive impact in our communities, we need to challenge volunteers to become allies, creating deep understanding of systemic change needed while building relationships across socioeconomic divides and achieving results for families.