(The following article was originally printed in the Nevada Appeal on May 17, 2009.)

By Teri Vance, Nevada Appeal

Participants of Capital City Circles Initiative share their stories

Every graduate has a story to tell. A story of triumph and a story of hope. The eight participants set to graduate Wednesday from the Capital City Circles Initiative, a program aimed at ending generational poverty, are no different. In some ways their stories are the same. They’ve all been down on their luck. Most have been homeless at one point, living in motels, cars or on the street. But they all have unique experiences that brought them there. Some defy stereotype, like Donna Griffins, who built a life around being a wife and mother. When her husband left after more than 13 years of marriage, she eventually ended up homeless.  While she was living with her seven children at the Frontier, a weekly motel in Carson City, she said people often advised her to get off drugs. “I don’t have a drug problem,” she explained. “I have a finance problem.

For some, it will be their first graduation ceremony ever.  Holly Douton, who has a law degree and passed the bar exam but has never practiced law, hopes it’s the one graduation that makes the others mean something.  Circles builds relationships  Carson City was one of 25 cities in the nation to originally adopt the Circles program, and now there are about 40 across the U.S., said Dina Phippen, coordinator of the program run through Health and Human Services.

The group meets weekly at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church for dinner, followed by the Getting Ahead Workshop. The workshops, Phippen said, are meetings to discuss goals and progress. After graduation, they move on to the next phase — the circle.  In this phase, they will each be matched up with five “allies,” middle- and upper-class families who volunteer to meet monthly with the clients for informal dinners.

Phippen explained that many people in poverty have only experienced poverty. It’s important for them to associate with others so they can be comfortable in a variety of social and professional situations.

“Circles is just making intentional relationships across socioeconomic barriers,” Phippen said. “It’s a new approach — let’s come together as a community."

However, she said, they are still lacking community volunteers for this next phase.

The clients also promise reciprocity once they graduate.

“The beauty is we have a chance to help others,” said participant David Douton. “It will continue to grow and hopefully encircle all of Carson City and we won’t have poverty anymore.”

Wednesday’s graduation, they hope, is the beginning of their new stories.

“It symbolizes that we’ve actually accomplished something,” Holly Douton said. “We know the work is just beginning. The hard stuff is really to come. But we made the first step."

Here are their stories:

Donna Griffins

It used to be that when Donna Griffins’ daughters left Carson High School, they’d walk four blocks out of their way before heading home. They wanted classmates to think they lived in the neighborhood and not at the Frontier Motel.

It wasn’t a situation Griffins liked either.  "It was embarrassing. Scary at first,” she said of living in the motel. “You couldn’t trust anybody.”

When her marriage ended after more than 13 years, the wife and stay-at-home mother of seven ended up getting evicted and had no place to go. Most weekly motels in California, she said, wouldn’t let her stay with so many children. She ended up in Carson City at the Frontier Motel, which has double rooms. Barely making it on child support and drowning in debt, Griffins didn’t know how to get the help she needed.“Everywhere I turned, everything was a fight,” she said. “I didn’t even know how to apply for food stamps.”

When it came time in the Circles program to think about a career, she said, she didn’t have any inclination of what she wanted to do nor how to do it. “With seven kids at home, you can’t just go to school,” she said. Someone suggested she consider becoming a certified nurse’s assistant. For the first time ever, she put her kids in day care and completed the five-week program. Now she works part-time at Ormsby Health Care.

“I love being able to help people,” she said. And the family — Brittany, Courtney, Emily, Phoebey, David, Tienery and Elijah — lives in a four-bedroom house. “We’ve become a lot closer through all of this,” she said. “It’s become a blessing for us. It’s been an extraordinary journey in an extraordinary city.”

Haylie Hume and Cody Whiterock

Both Haylie Hume and Cody Whiterock, parents now of two young children, were in trouble at an early age.  Instead of graduating from White Pine High School in Ely, Hume was serving time at Caliente Youth Center, a detention center in Southern Nevada. Whiterock, from Owyhee, went to jail the first time at 17 and was in and out of custody for several years, including two years in prison.  “I really just didn’t know how to live life,” Whiterock said. “I didn’t know who I was or how life worked. I was living like a kid, drinking, partying and doing drugs.” Whiterock moved to Ely from Owyhee to watch his brother’s house when his brother was sent to prison. He and Hume met at a McDonald’s there eight years ago and have been together since.

Hume said the program taught the two better communication skills, something they want to pass on to their children Elyah, 3, and Leland, 1. “It brings people together as a family,” she said. “We still struggle financially, but as a family, we’re strong. We’re strong in love.” 

And Hume has another graduation coming up — from the Carson City Beauty Academy. She plans to work for a few years then open her own hair salon, with a room where Whiterock can have a tattoo parlor. Whiterock works full-time now at a tire shop and hopes to go to Western Nevada College to pursue a career as a mechanic. Both want their children to have an understanding of and appreciation for their Shoshone heritage, and to avoid the mistakes their parents made.

Hume said they can set a better example for their children now. “Now I can walk into a room and feel confident,” she said. “I know in myself I have something to offer. I’m comfortable in my own skin now.”

Dave and Holly Douton

When Dave and Holly Douton went looking for assistance to pay rent until Holly’s first paycheck came through, Dave told the caseworker, “We’re not looking for a handout. We just want a chance.”

For most of her life, Holly felt she’d been denied a chance. Although a good student in her Wisconsin elementary school, when she went to high school she didn’t fit in. “It was really hard,” she recalls. “I came from the poor elementary school to the rich high school, where having money was so much more important than everything else.”  She dropped out and got her General Education Degree instead. She started taking community college courses and got an associate’s degree, then went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in natural resource management.  After seeing her sister go through a messy divorce, she decided to go to law school. She graduated and passed the bar exam in North Dakota, but never practiced. In some ways, it was a lot like high school,” she said. “I felt really out of place. It may sound weird for a lawyer, but I was really shy.”

Being in Circles, she said, has helped her overcome that awkwardness.“We’ve got the mayor on the board and all these people who want to listen to us,” she said. “I’ve never had that before.”  And being members of the group has given them a sense of camaraderie. “Before, Dave and I felt like we were all alone. We were stuck,” she said. “Now, it’s like we have a family. If nothing else, somebody you can call and talk to, a shoulder to cry on.” After going through the program, she said, she’s considering a run for public office. She said life for their two children Kayleigh, 3, and Allison, 7 months, will be different.

“We’re going to be telling them they can do anything they want to do,” she said. “No one ever told me that. I went to law school despite what everyone told me, not because of it.”

Melissa Peden

Melissa Peden of Carson City has never been homeless. She’s always held a job and had enough money to make ends meet. The problem was, the ends never met. A single mother of two, Peden was always falling behind on her bills. The phone was constantly ringing from bill collectors, and the stress seemed too much, even causing high blood pressure. 

She was referred to the Circles program, and there she learned to budget, manage her money and begin to pay off her debt.

She said she used to spend her money on “dumb stuff,” like clothes and other non-essentials, until their was no money left to spend.  She works two jobs and studies at the Carson City Beauty Academy. She said she’s now “spending in the right places.”  As her debt has diminished, so has her stress. She said her blood pressure has gone down, and her kids can see the difference as well.  “I have more self-control,” she said. “I’m not yelling as much at the kids. It’s taught me how to move forward and get on the right path in life.”


Dina Phippen, coordinator for the Capital City Circles Initiative, third from right, leads the group Wednesday night at the St. Peters Episcopal Church. Photo by Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal.

Cody Whiterock plays with his son Leland, 1, during dinner Wednesday night at the Capital City Circles Initiative. The program helps families learn life skills that help them break the cycle of poverty. Photo by Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal.

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