MPN Now (Rochester, NY), July 29, 2008: Fighting poverty at home

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By Jack Haley

Women in the state fare worse economically than they did in 1989, according to a report by a New York City-based philanthropic organization that helps women overcome poverty.

In addition, women in the state are more likely to live in poverty than their national counterparts, the report notes, with 15.2 percent living in poverty here compared with 12.7 percent nationwide.

The report was compiled by the Institute for Women۪s Policy Research, a nonprofit organization that researches policy issues of importance to women.

“We are deeply troubled by the growing gap between the rich and poor in our state,” said the foundation۪s CEO, Ana Oliveira. “It is unacceptable that in such a resource-rich environment, thousands of women and families live in poverty.”

While there are many organizations and government programs aimed at helping people in need, one organization co-founded by a South Bristol woman is working to specifically address the needs of women through education, programs and the development of a support network.

Co-founder Deb Denome is now director of that organization, a nonprofit called Seeking Common Ground. She and four friends started it in 1997. At first they wanted to form a community-based business, said Denome, who then had a corporate job in publishing. The idea soon evolved into much more than that. They discovered that other women were “feeling the same pressures we did,” she said, wanting to spend quality time with their children and make a living, too.

That wasn۪t all.

“We saw women not being able to break out of poverty,” said Denome, 41, a mother of three who was facing her own set of challenges then that included her newborn daughter being diagnosed with cancer. Denome, who was married at the time, said her husband was starting his own business, which added to the financial strain.

Then she had a dream about a type of place that would soothe the spirit as well as help women manage financially.

Seeking Common Ground and the programs that operate under its umbrella are the embodiment of that dream. The programs include a community organic farm at Denome۪s home on Hicks Road in South Bristol; a farm-to-cafeteria program that works with Ontario County Cornell Cooperative Extension, local farmers and food service directors to increase the use of local foods in cafeterias; and Herb Haven, an herbal gardening and retail training program for women and children who are striving to become economically self-sufficient.

About 50 women are participating in one or more of the programs. The community farm is a cooperative that offers the chance to learn about agriculture and help grow a variety of vegetables and other edibles in exchange for having healthy, homegrown food. At Herb Haven, women attend eight to 10 hours a week to learn life skills (such as budgeting and setting goals), horticulture and retail job skills and attend a support group. They plant, tend and harvest the garden, create useful products with the herbs and then sell them from a shop at the site in Crystal Beach on Route 364. Free nutritious meals are provided for women and children, and a child-care program offers arts, crafts, song, dance, gardening, cooking and creative play.

Herb Haven is grant-funded and free to participants, said Denome, who is an herbalist and horticulture therapist. The women are asked to make a minimum commitment of six months. Most of the women are from Ontario and Yates counties and in transition from situations such as underemployment, job displacement, illness, divorce, abuse, chemical dependency and incarceration for non-violent crimes.

Robin Cross, 45, of Canandaigua, is one of those women who turned to Herb Haven. A widow, Cross is a mother of three and legally blind. “It۪s strengthening, the support here,” said Cross, who works in the garden and may soon be using her computer skills to help with organizing special events at Herb Haven.

Herb Haven doesn۪t provide job-placement services, but it does work with Finger Lakes Works, an organization that helps match people with jobs.

Margaret Hiller, 29, of Rushville, is rebuilding her skills and self-esteem after breaking her neck in a car accident in 2003.

“I like coming here, being around the people,” said Hiller, who moves pretty much normally but gets lots of headaches and neck aches. Her plan is to begin working in the Herb Haven gift shop, she said. She has lived with her parents since the car accident, she added, with plans to eventually move out and support herself.

Jessica Smith, 31 of Rushville, is a single mom with two boys, ages 6 and 7. She just graduated from Finger Lakes Community College in massage therapy and finds moral support at Herb Haven.

“I needed somewhere to go, somewhere to get a break,” she said. “This is a good place.”

Contact Julie Sherwood at (585) 394-0770, ext. 263, or

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