Tales of the New South

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Mary Zigbuo’s quiet search for hope in Anson County

Mary Zigbuo ensures Circles are unbroken

By Elizabeth Leland
eleland@charlotteobserver.com

More Information

  • More: Tales of the New South
  • 10 New South Tales

    June 17: Southern Drawl

    June 24: Livermush

    July 1: Jewish life

    July 8: Globalizing city

    July 15: Segregated past

    Today: Rural poverty

    July 29: Gateway to city

    Aug. 5: Still Bank Town?

    Aug. 12: Flying the flag

    Aug. 19: Booster gene

    For DNC visitors, this series will be featured online at charlotteobserver.com.



WADESBORO I didn’t have to drive 50 miles from the banks and shiny skyscrapers of Charlotte to see people standing in line at food banks, houses falling into disrepair and drug addicts loitering on street corners. There’s plenty of that in Charlotte.

But by most standards, the poverty in the city pales in comparison to the poverty in rural parts of North Carolina – and there are a lot of rural parts of North Carolina. I could have driven to Scotland County, where the latest unemployment rate was 16.9 percent, or Graham County at 15.7 percent.

I picked Anson when I learned that a missionary who served for 20 years in Liberia – one of the world’s poorest countries – is now serving as a missionary in Anson County, of all places.

A missionary in the Piedmont of North Carolina?Anson County is one of several locations around the world – others include Democratic Republic of Congo and Eastern Europe – that the United Methodist Church targeted in an effort to alleviate poverty. Though not the hardest hit place in our state or in the South, Anson’s statistics are staggering: One in five people live in poverty. The unemployment rate in May was 11.7 percent.

“You’re talking 45 minutes south of Charlotte,” said Owen Furuseth, a UNC Charlotte geography professor and expert on rural land who, like any good teacher, gave me a history lesson: The reason, he said, is because of geography and predates the Civil War.

“Anson is more like the Deep South – the cotton belt/ black belt counties – than anything you’ll find in the Piedmont,” he said. “The land is flatter and more fertile and lent itself to larger plantations. Anson is over 50 percent African-American because of the large slave population. Today’s poverty is a legacy of all that.”

As you might expect, Anson County doesn’t want to be defined by poverty. I drove there to write about how tough times are not that far from Charlotte, but Mary Zigbuo had other plans for me. She works with a nonprofit called Circles of Hope that partners volunteers and community leaders with poor families.

She filled up my day, introducing me to people who have lived in poverty, and people who helped them get out.

Circles of Hope

I thought Zigbuo’s perspective would be interesting because she witnessed dire poverty in Liberia. The per capita income in that African country, according to The World Bank, is the equivalent of $281 a year. Anson’s per capita income, though low by American standards, is an estimated $17,675.

Zigbuo is an elegant woman who wears her long hair in tiny braids. She grew up in Bolton in Eastern North Carolina.

“I, too, was raised in poverty,” she said. “The difference is that my parents, though limited in education and very limited in resources, were very determined that all their kids would go to school. That’s the difference I see now: that kind of parental expectation and encouragement.”

She saw it in Liberia but not so much in the United States.

The Circles of Hope program, Zigbuo said, explores ways to help people escape poverty, one family at a time.

“The system is set up so people drown very slowly out of sight,” said the Rev. Rob Rollins of First United Methodist Church, which hosts the Circles program. “As long as you don’t encounter people, they don’t exist. In a small-town community, you can’t run and hide.”

Climbing out of poverty

Our first stop was a weary-looking building near the center of town. Shannon McClendon unlocked the door, and we followed her up a worn, dimly lit staircase. Her tiny $325-a-month apartment stood like a box inside the second floor, the windows looking out onto interior hallways.

I have been in living rooms in Charlotte bigger than McClendon’s three-bedroom apartment. But she was so happy there after being homeless you would have thought it was a palace. Her palace. She had worked third shift the night before at a chicken-processing plant and got up after a few hours of sleep to tell me about how the Circles of Hope program helped her.

“I made a lot of bad decisions,” McClendon said. “I went to the Department of Correction for forging and uttering. I was drinking and doing drugs. I started straightening up around 2005, and I’ve been clean since ’07. If it takes six years to mess up your life, it’s going to take more than one year to fix it up.”

To be part of the Circles program, you have to want to work to get out of poverty. A Circle is made up of a low-income family and two or more “allies” from the middle class who agree on specific goals, such as finding a job or a place to live. Sandy Bruney, a writer, is McClendon’s ally; she said McClendon was angry and tearful when they first met.

McClendon explained: “I tried and tried and tried, but things always seemed to go wrong.”

One paycheck from poverty

Our next stop was at John and Earlisa Pope’s house. Despite having jobs, they teetered for years on the edge of poverty. Then in January 2010, John lost his position as housekeeping supervisor at a medical center that was downsizing.

“I like to die right there,” John said.

Around the same time, Earlisa said her hours as a certified nursing assistant were gradually reduced to one hour a week. “We didn’t know where to turn, where to go,” she said. “I became a food bank queen. I knew every food bank and what day they gave out food.”

Now they volunteer at a food bank. “They teached us how to get out of poverty,” John said about the Circles of Hope program.

“I have learned to buy everything in the grocery store,” Earlisa said. No more trips to McDonald’s for a Coke. “It may seem minor to buy one,” she said. “But if you’re trying to save your money, if you buy one soda a day that adds up to $10 a week.”

I could tell you many things about John and Earlisa Pope: They both work two jobs. John found a full-time job with a textile company and bags groceries at the IGA in the evenings. Earlisa cooks at a middle school and works at a nursing home every other weekend.

I could go on about how generous they are. It was Earlisa who told McClendon about the job at the chicken factory and drove her there and waited several hours while McClendon interviewed and then gave McClendon their old stove for her new apartment.

I could tell you that they are so poor, Earlisa could not afford the dentures she desperately needed.

But let me leave you with this one fact: John and Earlisa’s oldest son, Jonathan, scored 1200 out of a perfect 1600 on the SAT college admission test. He took the test last year in seventh grade. He scored better than about 80 percent of all students who take the SAT, and most of those students are nearing the end of high school. A college recruiter called him.

When Earlisa told me, I thought back to something one of the Circles of Hope volunteers said: We make a lot of assumptions about people who are poor, and those assumptions aren’t always accurate.

“Everybody who is poor is not poor because they want to be poor, or because they are lazy,” said Marlene Richardson, a retired educator who volunteers. “Even when I was working, I was just one paycheck away from poverty.”

Coming full circle

Robin Sanford is co-owner with her husband of the IGA and volunteers as the Popes’ ally. She thought she knew people in her rural North Carolina town, but after working with the Circles program she realized how little she really knew.

“As a business owner, I think in terms of skill sets, and I’m looking at people who have been overlooked,” she said. “Maybe they can’t read or write, or maybe they have no teeth, but they’ve never missed a day of work.”

Mary Zigbuo helped volunteers like Sanford make that connection. Now Zigbuo’s mission has ended. She leaves Anson County on Thursday, awaiting another assignment.

The Circles of Hope will continue without her.

The program, she said, is in good hands. Who better to help those in need than their neighbors?

Leland: eleland@charlotteobserver.com
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