Donna Beegle was born into generations of poverty — some of her relatives couldn’t read.
It was the same for Beegle — at age 26 she couldn’t read a newspaper or write a sentence.
Beegle, however, broke the mold and received a doctoral degree in educational leadership. She has since traveled to all 50 states — and eight other countries — to help communities identify struggles with poverty and address them. She’s done that work for 30 years now.
Monday morning, she stood before a group of about two dozen Cortland County leaders at the Grace Christian Fellowship church on Fisher Avenue in Cortlandville, including Cortland County legislators Michael Barylski, Richard Stock, Douglas Bentley, Kelly Preston and Cathy Bischoff; Sheriff Mark Helms and Cortland Police Chief F. Michael Catalano; District Attorney Patrick Perfetti; and Mental Health Director Mark Thayer and Area Agency on Aging Director Liz Haskins.
Beegle she projected an image onto a screen. Seven skeletons stood in a line, above them read the message: Underneath we’re all the same. That was part of Beegle’s message.
Around 15 percent of people who live in Cortland County — around 7,000 people — are living at or below the federal poverty level, said Lindy Glennon, executive director of Community Service Programs for Cortland Cortland. That’s 21 percent more poverty than the rest of America.
“Almost 50 percent of children who attend Cortland County schools … are eligible for free or reduced lunches,” she added. “We have a lot of people in our community who are struggling, low-income people living in poverty.”
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that for 2019, the poverty guideline for a household of four in the lower 48 states is at $25,750.
Nationwide, the poverty rate was 12.3 percent in 2017, according to U.S. Census data.
Monday’s forum brought together county officials and community leaders for the first step in helping get people out of poverty and keep them out. To do so Cortland would become an Opportunity Community — a model to improve outcomes for the people who live in poverty, according to Beegle’s presentation.
“We have to focus on helping people move out and stay out,” Beegle said. “That’s the basis of opportunity community.”
The opportunity community approach uses existing assets in the community including people in poverty; businesses; social services; education; health care; justice; faith-based organization; and community members.
Beegle asked attendants to identify stereotypes of poverty and also imagine themselves in the shoes of those in poverty. The community needs to discuss them.
“We have to get all the big ones out there,” she said. Learn the facts around poverty, Beegle told the crowd. Get to know the life experiences; history of poverty; and basic facts in the community.
The opportunity community will look to address a number of principles including:
• Rebuilding hope.
• Removing shame and judgment.
• Starting grass-roots economic development.
• Reducing isolation.
• Creating a community-wide connected poverty-informed approach.
Two more community forums are set to follow, the first being in May and aimed at dispelling stereotypes.