Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Open Table: Solving Poverty through Relationships

A youth group from Paradise Valley United Methodist Church served breakfast at a shelter for homeless people in Phoenix, AZ, one Saturday morning in 2005. A man named Ernie asked, “Would I be able to worship at your church?” A bit taken aback, the leader, Jon Katov, said yes, and picked up Ernie the next morning and brought him to church. After a few months of picking up Ernie, members of the church decided that they needed to do more to help Ernie, and formed a group of about 12 people to help him become self-sufficient. This group met weekly, helped Ernie determine what he wanted his life to look like in a year, and then helped him achieve those goals. It was a life-changing experience for everyone involved, and led Jon to create The Open Table, a movement to “lift others out of poverty and homelessness to stability and wholeness, one at a time.”  
Shawn Pearson

To understand what impact this organization has on the lives of those it serves, we visited with Shawn Pearson, former vice-president of The Open Table, and Sarah Sanders, the director for the first Open Table at Arizona State University.

But wait, what does Open Table have to do with hunger?  In our travels, we’ve heard over and over that programs like soup kitchens and food pantries are a Band-Aid for the problems of hunger in the US.  Yes, we need them, but they treat the symptom – hunger – while doing little to address the main cause of hunger, namely poverty.

We’ve also visited organizations that address larger issues facing some individuals, such as addiction (for example, Wheeler Mission Ministries and Salvation Army) and lack of useful job skills (for example, DC Central Kitchen, Red Bird Mission, and Create Common Good).  We’ve also visited advocacy and policy groups (such as New York City Coalition Against HungerHunger Free Vermont, Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon).  But how about those who really would like to escape poverty, but have so many frustrations and challenges that it’s very hard to keep going, finding the help they need, and solving their numerous interrelated problems?

Sarah Sanders
Many people in poverty lack a network of good role models to help them move from their current state to a stable, healthy life.  In many cases, there are broken family relationships, deep sorrows, and a lack of trust in others.  There may be medical problems.  There also may be a lack of skills that many of us take for granted, things like budgeting and saving.  Open Table surrounds a person who wants to step up out of poverty with a tableful of people to love them, to cheer them on, and to help them achieve their goals.

How does Open Table work? 

An organization (usually faith-based) recruits a group of about 12 people who are committed to spending one year being a friend to a person who wants to escape poverty.  These volunteers usually include people with varying backgrounds.  They are trained in how an Open Table works.

Individuals or family units are typically referred to The Open Table by churches, social workers, transitional housing organizations, or homeless shelters, but sometimes individuals apply on their own.   The application process is quite rigorous.  They are given a background check including fingerprinting, a credit check, and a computerized psychological profile done by Krist Samaritan Center, a mental health agency in Houston, TX.   Clients who are accepted, based on their readiness to get a hand up, not a handout, are then matched with an Open Table based on the needs of the person and the talents represented in the Table.

There’s an initial meeting between the client (called a brother or sister), and the director of the Table.  Usually, the brother or sister is quite excited.  Sarah related that one sister said, “This is a dream come true.  I would like so much to have a group of people helping me, I feel so alone in the world.  There’s nobody who is helping me.  It’s a little bit scary to be in relationship with all these strangers, but I’m willing to take the risk.” 

The first meeting between the whole Open Table and their brother or sister is called “breaking the bread,” and is a potluck dinner at one of the Open Table member’s home.   People around the table introduce themselves to the sister or brother by sharing their own stories, where they grew up, who they are, and why they’re volunteering to help this total stranger.  The sister or brother gets to ask questions, but doesn’t need to share anything at this meeting. 

At the second meeting, called “the story,” the brother or sister shares his or her life story.   This can be quite intimidating, in front of 10-12 almost strangers, but serves to inform Table members about the brother or sister’s history, issues, and current situation.

The third meeting (and perhaps the fourth), is a goal-setting meeting.  What would you like to accomplish in the next year?  The Table encourages the brother or sister to come up with between 50 and 100 goals, which really makes them stretch.  One sister said “I never knew I had all these ideas in me!”  It’s emotional, and can be hard for someone who’s been so beaten down to dream again.  The goals cover all aspects of their life -- educational, work, medical, legal, health, relationships, transportation, etc.  These goals are then ranked A, B, C according to their priority.  Then, the brother or sister decides what goals they should work on first, and people at the Open Table decide who (including the brother or sister) will do what during the next week to help accomplish those goals.  They may brainstorm on how to accomplish the goals, and often call on their networks to bring more resources to the Table.

At the next meetings, the Table members hold each other accountable.  How much progress have you made on your tasks?  This question applies to everyone, the brother or sister as well as the other members around the Table.

Sometimes, goals are modified or added.  For example, one sister had a goal to eat healthy food, but her teeth were in such poor shape that she couldn’t eat it.  Her Table told her she really needed to add the goal of getting dentures because that’s the only way she could eat healthy food.   In this case, the Table members arranged free dental care to help the sister reach her goal. 

What is accomplished?  Here are two examples we heard:

In one case, a sister was having trouble sleeping more than a few hours each night.  One of her goals was to figure out how to sleep better.  A couple of students on her Table researched insomnia and developed a plan for sleeping soundly through the night.  They brought this information to the Table, and each week they checked to see how her sleep was progressing.  Within about 4 weeks, she was sleeping through the night.  She said that hadn’t happened for years! 

In another case, a brother needed scholarships to continue as a student at Arizona State University, but found the application process overwhelming.  His son was also graduating from high school and needed scholarships to attend college, too.  So the 4 student members of this Table (computers in hand) met with the father and son, and worked for 5 hours helping them fill out scholarship applications.

What happens next?

The meetings continue weekly, with new goals added as previous goals are met.   As the year progresses, the Table may only meet once every 2 weeks, then monthly as the brother or sister becomes more confident.   At the end of the year, the Table reviews and celebrates the goals met, then disbands.

The dynamics of the Table change over the course of the year.  One brother, near the beginning of his Table, said, “I feel so uncomfortable that all of you want to help me.  Why would strangers want to help ME?”  But, as Sarah told us, “At some point during the year-long process, it’s no longer a group of strangers delving into your personal life and trying to help you figure out solutions, but it becomes a group of friends.   It’s people that you call because you like them, you want to be with them, you want to go out and do fun things together.  When you get together once a week, you’re delighted to see each other.  When you get to that point, things get a lot easier.  There’s trust earned.”

How would I start an Open Table in my church?

The first step would be to contact the founder and CEO of The Open Table, Jon Katov. He is working to spread the movement to more states (currently there are Open Tables in 5 states, with an expected 100 Tables in Arizona this year). Jon would help you through the process.

What’s special about the Open Table model?

Most of us have seen some of the elements of the Open Table model before, perhaps in helping a refugee resettle into the US, or in helping a troubled person in a local congregation.  However, the Open Table model puts these elements together in a well-defined program that can be followed easily and has been shown to work for most of those who take part.  In addition to people looking to move out of poverty, the Open Table model is being used successfully for those exiting prison, and it is currently being extended to apply to teens exiting the foster care system.

Everyone’s changed by the Open Table experience.  The brothers and sisters make significant healthy life changes, they come to more easily cope with what life throws at them, and they have more confidence.  But the other Table members are also profoundly changed.  They say things like, “When I look at this sister, how hard she’s working, and she’s doing it with all of her heart….  What do I have to complain about?  If I attacked my own issues with the same energy as this sister, I could make changes too.”  “I look at poverty completely differently after my experience with Open Table.”

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