It has been a week since Cookie’s funeral and burial, but the flowers are still beautiful as they sit in our dining room window. I’ve tried to resume a semblance of routine which has been hard since everything I do brings a reminder of Cookie. As I went through Cookie’s papers earlier this week, I saw the outline of her life story which she had shared in small-group a couple of months ago. She also thought it could be the basis of her obituary.
Cookie’s first point was simple: poverty. Not “I was born on a farm.” Nor “I was the baby of the family.” Not even “I played alone most of the time.” Even though each of these is true and affected who Cookie later became, what Cookie chose to say was stark and unambiguous, “Poverty.” Until they moved to town when Cookie was in 3rd grade, Cookie’s family lived in a house without indoor plumbing. The source of water was a cistern in the front yard. The toilet was an outhouse in the back. Her Dad struggled to successfully farm land that probably shouldn’t have ever been plowed with its thin, rocky soil. The straw that broke the camel’s back came when he bought a small herd of dairy cattle that had Bang’s disease rendering them infertile. Refusing to go bankrupt the family moved to town and Cookie’s Dad and Mom both worked hard for more than a decade before paying off their farm debt. When Cookie went to college, she didn’t expect nor did she receive financial support from her family. But it was the era when the federal government had good student aid programs, so by dint of her own hard work and a good financial aid package, Cookie was first member of her family to graduate from college.
But childhood poverty has its effect even in adulthood. When Cookie saw the financial advantages that friends continued to accrue from their families she struggled with envy. She chose to present herself as “different” rather than facing the feelings of inadequacy she felt. She often felt trapped by circumstances beyond her control. She was mulling over this one day while walking to the grocery store when she had what she would later refer to as her “aha” moment. She went in one moment from feeling sorry for herself to experiencing deep empathy for those still in poverty and those facing racial prejudice. “Oh my gosh,” she thought, “this must be how it feels to be poor. This must be how it feels to be discriminated against.” After that day, I never heard her compare herself to those who were better off than she was; her only concern was to lift up those who were worse off.
Beginning in 2004, the Newton community has held several seminars based on Ruby Paine’s book, “Bridges out of Poverty”, helping local educators, business leaders and church members to better understand how to work with and assist low-income families. Peace Connections coordinated a class based on Phil Devol’s “Getting Ahead in a Just Getting by World” for those in poverty wanting out. Organizations had to recommend and sponsor students. This is where Cookie became involved, co-teaching the class with Pam, a social-worker with a local agency. It soon became obvious that a class and the support of a sponsor was not enough; there needed to be more follow-up. The community was ready, but the connections weren’t being made.
Scott Miller founder of Move the Mountain, author of “Until It’s Gone: Ending Poverty in our Nation, in our Lifetime”, says, “What truly helps families find a way out of poverty is to become part of a community of people with different socioeconomic backgrounds who have learned to care about one another.” This was like music to Cookie’s ears. In October of 2007, Cookie and Myrna, director of Peace Connections, went to Marshall, Missouri for a hands-on training for Scott Miller’s Circles™ Campaign. The key concept of Circles™ is that those in middle and upper class have not only financial advantages, but also have a circle of social assets which is often missing among those in poverty. Participants in Circles™ are paired with local volunteers to provide those assets identified as a need by the participant. A “Getting Ahead” class which Cookie co-taught became the first cohort of Newton’s Circles of Hope. Cookie became the local spokesperson for Peace Connection’s Circles™ iniative, speaking in local churches and organizations as well as at a state poverty convention. She also helped coordinate the Scott Miller’s 2008 visit to Newton during which the Newton community shaped the future direction of the program.
When we left for India in July of 2009, the Newton Circles™ effort was small, but it had a strong group of volunteers. By the time we returned in August of 2010 the program had gained momentum with group meetings often numbering over 50 people. This fall seems to be the tipping point for the national campaign with stories about the program appearing on the CBS Evening News and CNN among others.
While we were planning Cookie’s funeral, someone asked me about the memorial; I had to admit that Cookie and I hadn’t discussed it. But it only took me a few seconds to realize that Circles™ would be the perfect memorial. It is, in fact, already a living memorial to Cookie’s dedication and joyful work. Inviting others to participate by their donations assures its continued viability. The flowers which I am still enjoying will eventually fade, but the lives changed by Circles™ will continue to be bright and beautiful.