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'I know how it is to struggle': A bridge out of poverty in Mississippi town

Lauren Wood / Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal

Sara Moye helps her nephew Keyon, 8, pick out shirts for the day as son Marshall, 9, and granddaughter Zykeriah, 3, look on in the living room of their house in Starkville on Aug. 10.

By Robbie Ward, Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal

STARKVILLE, Mississippi – Standing among a crowd recently in rural Oktibbeha County watching youth football games, Sara Moye could have been mistaken for a social worker, sociologist or cultural anthropologist.

She stood near the fence separating spectators from the boys playing football and commented about poverty conditions affecting approximately 1 in 3 county residents, according to Census data.

Moye, 43, a Starkville native, can discuss poverty with a hint of detachment, mentioning hidden rules members of different economic classes follow, the need for impoverished people to have strong support systems of family or friends and misconceptions that many people in poverty have about those in the middle class.

Along with taking classes for nearly two years now related to poverty’s causes and ways to overcome it, Moye has lived in it her entire life.

While many people in poverty feel shame discussing what they don’t have – money, nice clothes, a good job and car – Moye speaks of her life with an honesty and objectivity that few people will, at least not publicly, and certainly not while watching her children play football on a hot Mississippi Saturday.

Since participating in Starkville Bridges Out of Poverty, a program aimed at helping people in poverty identify strategies and come up with a game plan to transition out, Moye’s thoughts about her life situation have changed dramatically. The program is modeled after a national program used to connect people in the middle class and poverty so that they can understand and communicate with each other to better help those in need.

Lauren Wood / Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal

Sara Moye works with Clara Dancer as they complete an exercise about building resources during their Bridges Out of Poverty class on Aug. 13 at the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in Starkville.

“If somebody said I was in poverty, I was ready to fight,” Moye said, still watching the football game. “I thought my life was normal.”

With 1 in 4 Mississippians living in poverty, this lack of resources is relatively common in the state, which had the highest rate of poverty nationwide, along with one of the highest rates of child poverty. Many such people rely on government assistance, which drains resources that could otherwise help fund education, better roads and other state services.

High poverty rates also affect quality of life in an area and can create stigmas for communities, leaving some desirable businesses reluctant to locate there.

Moye describes her life until recent years as a series of bad decisions mixed with tough luck that have forced her to try to make it better her and her family.

After dropping out of a year of college at Mississippi State University, the African-American woman from a close-knit family began working low-skill jobs at a convenience store, cleaning hotel rooms and other work she could find.

By age 21, she had her first child and was in a relationship with a man who would hit her in the face. Moye would lie and tell her mom the marks came from falling on a coffee table at home.

Five years ago, Moye quit working low-paying jobs to take care of her mother, who had a stroke. They lived off of income from disability payments to Moye’s mother, child support and food stamps.

And in 2011, one of Moye’s sisters died from liver hepatitis. That’s when she felt her life unravel. She never felt suicidal, just angry at the world.

Along with helping her mother, Moye took in her sister’s son, Keyon, 8, to raise as her own child.

“When he really wants something, he’ll call me ‘mama’,” Moye said.

Along with her nephew and mother, Moye’s younger son lives with them, while her 22-year-old son lives in Texas working in retail. However, he fathered a girl, 3, who lives in Starkville with her mother, who works at a gas station while attending community college. Moye keeps her granddaughter on weekends.

Through Starkville Bridges Out of Poverty, Moye met Lynn Phillips-Gaines, a successful financial planner who created the grassroots effort after spending years trying to find a vehicle to help poor people through financial literacy. Bridges also helps people in poverty identify resources beyond financial, such as emotional, mental, spiritual, support systems, relationships and knowledge of unspoken cues and habits of different economic classes.

Moye shakes her head when asked if she’d ever think she would have a financial planner as a friend.

“I never thought in a million years I’d have a friend like Lynn,” Moye said recently at her house just south of Starkville’s city limits. “I’m of the poverty level and Lynn is more of the middle class.”

Getting to know Phillips-Gaines helped shatter stereotypes Moye had of people in middle class. She generally thought that middle-class people were stingy and didn’t want to help poor people like her. She considered many of them hypocrites, ignoring Christianity’s teachings of love and charity.

“I used to think they were stingy, uppity,” Moye said. “I thought they thought they were above God.”

But now Moye says she understands why people with more money than her haven’t just given her and other poor people direct help. She talks about her old habits of spending money as soon as she got it, how she had so many expenses she couldn’t save any of it.

“I know how to save now,” she said. “At first, I couldn’t do it.”

At her home, she spends time during the weekends with her family. Many cousins, uncles, aunts and others live nearby, allowing them to gather and visit. Family is an area in Moye’s life that makes her feel rich. Her supportive family leans on each other during tough financial times, and when a crisis strikes, such as a death or sickness in the family.

Some family members felt a little skeptical about Moye completing the Bridges program, knowing that she has started projects and programs previously but not finished them. But she made believers of them and others when she graduated from the class.

She even served as a facilitator with the most recent Bridges Out of Poverty class in Starkville, transitioning from student to teacher. Moye knows she’s still poor but understanding the larger causes of poverty and learning more about resources available in the community to help her attain a better life, she says she has hope for her future.

She also prods her children to do well in school, encouraging her son Marshall, 9, to embrace his love for animals, hoping he may study a field of science in college.

Moye said she and her family also eat healthier, trying to limit sodas and other foods that give empty calories. She’s trying to find a way to get a reduced cost gym membership to lose weight.

Wander Carr, Moye’s older sister who lives a short distance from her, works as a bookkeeper for a state Department of Human Services office in Starkville. Married 25 years, Carr said with two incomes in her family, they still border along the poverty line.

Carr said she’s proud of her younger sister for the effort to learn more about poverty.

“She has started things and quit before, but she really likes this,” Carr said. “If she really likes something, she’ll stick to it.”

Although Moye hasn’t made concrete steps, she said she wants to enroll at a local community college to learn skills that will help her re-enter the workforce.

“I want to help others,” she said. “I know how it is to struggle.”


Editor's note: This story was originally published on September 30, 2013 in the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal and is reprinted with permission. Reporter Robbie Ward volunteered as a facilitator in the first Bridges Out of Poverty class in Starkville in 2011.