Ithaca Journal, May 3, 2008: Education helps break the generational cycle of poverty

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By Topher Sanders

Journal Staff

Pam Byrd once thought a college diploma wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on. In her mind, life experience was all she needed to get by.

After being in poverty for many years and working hard to juggle school, kids and work to earn her associate’s degree, however, Byrd believes an education could be what helps to lift her and her four children out of poverty.

Byrd is a participant in the Public Assistance Comprehensive Education, or PACE, program at Tompkins Cortland Community College.

The program helps parents receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families grant money from the Tompkins County Department of Social Services attend community college at no cost.

Beyond changing her own life, getting on the path to higher education will help to change the lives of her children, Byrd said.

“I believe that,” she said. “That’s the number one thing that encouraged me. It’s been proven over and over again that poverty can be generational. When my kids get older I just want them to know that it doesn’t have to be. You can go beyond any limits, if you’re willing to take steps forward.”

No matter if it’s obtaining solid employment, joining the military or maximizing programs such as those that help with homeownership or pursuing higher education, the one thing those who lift themselves out of poverty have in common is an attitude of perseverance.

Attitudes aside, support is key for people to escape poverty, and programs such as PACE help get people started. Tompkins County’s PACE program is the only one remaining in the state, officials said.

The PACE program peaked in participation in 1993, with 14 different colleges participating throughout the state, said Anthony Farmer, a spokesman for the New York Office for Temporary and Disability Assistance.

The office wasn’t able to find out how many counties participated in 1993. After 1993, many PACE programs morphed into a similar program called the College Opportunities to Prepare for Employment program. A few of the COPE programs still exist in New York City, Farmer said.

“I don’t know of any other program where the children in the household actually see their parents go through a social service-approved program that teaches them that education is the way to go,” said David Chase, division coordinator with Tompkins County Department of Social Services and who oversees the office responsible for the PACE program. “We’re also talking about families here. This benefits an entire family when a person gets educated and is able to secure a better paying job. The whole family moves up.”

Since 2004 there have been 73 PACE students, and 22 have graduated and obtained employment. Another 21 people were removed from the program either for not meeting the program’s demands or simply because their personal situation changed so they no longer received a Temporary Assistance for Needy Families grant from DSS, said Alexis Dengel, PACE coordinator at Tompkins Cortland Community College.

Of those 21 people removed from the program, 14 have graduated from Tompkins Cortland Community College even though they weren’t in the PACE program or they are continuing to work on their degrees.

The other 30 students are no longer in class, but Dengel says she keeps in touch with the individuals in order to plan ways to get them back in school.

In the past 4 years, the program has had an average cost of $102,000 a year. That money is paid initially by Tompkins-Cortland Community College, which is reimbursed by DSS as students reach determined milestones.

Rosemary Thomas is a 1993 graduate of the PACE program. She said she started the program after her husband left her and her five children.

“I could have gone to work at that point, but I didn’t have the skills to bring in the kind of income it would take to take care of us,” she said. “So I had this idea that if I were able to go to college and get some skills, I would be able to really take care of us.”

After graduating from Tompkins Cortland Community College, Thomas had a new confidence about what she could accomplish.

“I had the world by the tail, and you could see it radiating from my smile,” Thomas said of her graduation. “And when I went into going to school I was scared to death and I didn’t know that there would ever be a better day.”

Thomas went on to graduate from Cornell University in 1995 and is a training specialist with the Denver STD/HIV Prevention Training Center.

Her five children were all under age 10 when she started the PACE program in the early 1990s. Her success has helped to improve opportunities for her children.

Thomas’ daughter recently told her that she was happy her mother went to college because she believes she would have been living in a trailer park with two or three kids of her own by now without her mother’s example.

“Instead, she has her bachelor’s degree and she too has the world by the tail,” Thomas said.

Carl Haynes, president of Tompkins Cortland Community College, is proud of stories such as Thomas’ and shares her success whenever he can. He relays the story of Thomas gripping the steering wheel of her car, white-knuckled, not knowing whether she would turn into the campus or not.

“That’s what the PACE program does, that’s what it does to lift people out of poverty,” Haynes said. “And it’s not just her, it’s the generations after her. Her children have been inspired through her to now get an education and go on and do some of the things that having a higher education will do for you.”

Thomas stressed, however, that all is not great just because a person pursues his or her education in a program such as PACE. These programs are important, but what an individual brings to the program is just as important, Thomas said.

“Unless they have within themselves motivation, desire, passion and capacity, then a great program is still not going to be able to serve that person,” she said.

Support, coupled with an ample amount of resilience, is needed to transition from poverty, those interviewed said.

“If you could bottle or package resilience, oh my gosh, what a great commodity that would be,” Thomas said.

Mustering the courage to pursue school was difficult for Pamela Byrd. She spent two years being unsure how to move her life forward after splitting up with a physically abusive husband, she said.

“I was kind of just sitting at home and really beating myself up,” Byrd said. “I would barely get out of bed and just feeling like I couldn’t function because I felt like I was worthless.”

A daycare counselor who worked with Byrd and her children began talking to Byrd about her goals and told her to pursue the PACE program. The prospect of going to work, school and raising her children did not fill Byrd with enthusiasm. But the counselor’s encouragement changed her attitude.

Even once Byrd was in the program she went to PACE coordinator Alexis Dengel many times to express her frustration.

“There were times where she literally had to sit down and coach me because I had so much negativity drummed into me,” she said.

Now with graduation approaching in May, Byrd is more hopeful about her future and is proud of getting that “piece of paper.”

“I really want to work with people who get caught up in the system whether it be people who have gone through domestic abuse or who have had to deal with the legal system,” she said. “I want to help them to know that they can succeed and they don’t have to have the victim mentality and that it’s OK to advocate for yourself.”

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