Cadillac News: “Rising above the poverty line”

by Rick Charmoli

Jeff Miller has a unique perspective on financial stability.

He doesn’t use the traditional markers – how many material items he has or assets bought and traded on the stock exchange – to determine whether he has financial stability. Instead, the 36-year-old uses a much simpler way to come to that conclusion – are all the bills paid and are all the basic needs of his family met?

While the answer to both those questions is yes, there was a period in his life when the answer was no.

Like some families in Wexford and Missaukee counties, Miller and his family were in poverty.

“I wouldn’t say we are doing well, but we are not hurting either. I’m not in poverty now, but not completely removed,” he said. “If I was to miss a month of work, I would be in poverty again.”

Miller said he wasn’t living a lavish life style before he got married in 1995 but said he was doing all right. Then came marriage, kids and all the costs associated with both. Before too long, it was the norm to have weekly trips to the Family Independent Agency, as well as to church pantries.

Miller said from 1996 until 2004-2005, his family was in constant financial instability. That instability led to bankruptcy, as well as losing his house and car. It wasn’t until he got into a program through the Northwest Michigan Community Action Agency that he was able to turn things around.

“I got involved in the Head Start program through their policy council in 1999. The NMCAA is the manager of the Head Start program and it has parent involvement,” he said. “It took me out of the mind set of ‘here is my situation and I just have to deal with it.’ When you have someone tell you things like, ‘You can do it,’ and you hear it all the time, you start to change your mind set.”

With that new sense of empowerment, Miller was able to turn things around. He went from having to work for someone else to owning his own business, Wargames North. The business sells games and collectables, and it was something that Miller was doing out of his home. It has been open for more than a year.

“It got to the point where it overwhelmed my basement. I worked at a machine shop until August, and by then my partner said I didn’t need to work there anymore,” he said. “As far as the short-term picture, things are going well. Once you are convinced you can do better and are given that support system, it kind of changes your mind set.”

That empowerment is what Ken Nydam is hoping can change the lives of many people in similar situations.

As the Community Collaborative Coordinator for Wexford and Missaukee counties, Nydam said that is the message an upcoming speaker is going to share.

During a community forum on March 24 called “Escape the Stress of Poverty,” Donna Beegle will be speaking to reduce poverty in Wexford and Missaukee counties.

“We need to emphasize empowerment. That is really the focus of the endeavor,” he said. “It is not only about relief. Relief can be enabling. Why make a change when everyone is giving me what I need. We want to empower people to move toward what Jeff (Miller) has done.”

Nydam said a goal of the community forum on the March 24 also is to identify the obstacles the community has put in front of people in poverty, which keep them in poverty. The overall goal is not just to give people in poverty relief – but a life, Nydam said.

“That is Donna Beegle’s message. Educate the middle class and tell them they are part of the problem,” he said. “You have to walk in the shoes of someone who has been in poverty to understand them.”

While Miller is not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, he is financially stable, and he plans to keep it that way.

“I can’t complain as far as my financial situation as compared to what it used to be. We have food, clothing and a house to live in,” he said.

Forum on poverty

• What: Community forum – “Escape the Stress of Poverty”

• When: 9 a.m. to noon on March 24

• Where: Cadillac Area Public Schools Community Auditorium

• Who: Donna Beegle, expert on poverty

• Why: A presentation of the Human Services Leadership Council in an effort to reduce poverty in Wexford and Missaukee counties

• Admission: Free and open to the public.

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