MACHIAS, Maine — It was a wake-up call for Charley Martin-Berry, a get-acquainted lesson in poverty.
She was visiting a teenage mother in the Machias area, working for a program that helped teen parents earn their high school diploma. It was winter.
“It used to bug me that her steps wouldn’t be shoveled,” Martin-Berry recalled. The snow was tramped down on the steps, ice adding to the hazard. “I thought, ‘This is kind of dangerous.’ ”
Martin-Berry simply assumed her client was too busy to bother with keeping the steps cleared of snow. She offered to shovel the snow.
“There was this kind of awkward moment when she said to me, ‘I don’t have a shovel.’ It really struck me.”
“That lesson for me was,” Martin-Berry said, “you have to go into a home when you’re working with families living in poverty and sort of hold that ‘normal’ that you know at bay in order to see the reality of her life, and her world, from a different perspective.”
The CCC is sponsoring the institute this week to help people understand that perspective. The event, which began Tuesday, wraps up Thursday. It has drawn about 200 people — individuals, teachers, nurses, social workers and others who deal with the needy.
Thirty percent of children in Washington County live in poverty, according to the Margaret Chase Smith Center’s Poverty in Maine Update, December 2011. Poverty is a problem of the tribal communities but also elsewhere in the county because of its rural nature, noted Christine Laurel, a spokeswoman for CCC.
Maine’s individual poverty rate was 14.2 percent in 2011, the most recent year available, according to Ann Acheson, a research associate for the Smith center; the national rate was 15.9 percent. Washington County registered the highest poverty rate of Maine’s counties at 21.7 percent, up from 19.4 percent the previous year, also the highest in the state. It was followed, in order, by Piscataquis at 19.5 percent, Somerset at 18.6 percent and Aroostook at 18.3 percent.
The institute is being led by Donna Beegle, founder and president of an Oregon-based consulting firm, Communication Across Barriers, which provides education and training services to help communities and their organizations combat poverty.
The first day was devoted to teaching communication skills. “Without the right communication exchange, you can’t establish that trusting relationship,” explained Laurel.
The other two days consisted of training for “navigators” — people seeking to help neighbors and others who are mired in poverty.
“This year’s institute is extremely exciting for us because we’re really reaching a broader range of people,” said Marjorie Withers, director of CCC, which sponsored a one-day seminar on poverty a year ago by Beegle and is building on that this year. In addition to heads of government agencies from elsewhere in Maine, Washington County is “really well represented” among participants, she said. They include people representing 37 agencies, tribal communities, legislators and more. A lot of educators were in the audience.
“Truly, it’s a who’s who, and who’s trying to make a difference in people’s lives,” said Withers.
“That’s a tribute to Washington County,” she added, calling it “an incredibly resilient place.”
Wednesday’s activities included audience participation. An unidentified woman took the floor and pointed out that Washington County has no homeless shelter. “That’s a really big issue facing the county,” she said.
“How many of you know that our strengths can be weaknesses?” Beegle asked the audience. “That our weaknesses can be strengths?” It depends on the context, she said. As an example, she cited her son, whom she described as being argumentative. That character weakness may help him one day to an effective attorney, she suggested.
Five partner organizations co-sponsored this event with the CCC: Child & Family Opportunities, Cobscook Community Learning Center, Community Health and Counseling Services, UMM and Washington Hancock Community Agency.
“It can be hard work,” said Martin-Berry, “because it’s your own normal, it’s your reality that you have to sort of suspend in order to be understanding and connecting and be able to actually do the work and make a difference.”