For six hours on Friday, area residents heard from national speakers and community leaders on the state of poverty in the Ozarks at the S. Truett Cathy Poverty Summit hosted at College of the Ozarks.

“This is not fancy, it’s not dessert, it’s meat-and-potatoes kind of stuff,” said Elizabeth Hughes, executive director of Christian Action Ministries food pantry.

Hughes called the effort “the first of its kind,” as community members filed into the Keeter Center at College of the Ozarks to hear from national speakers and attend a panel discussion hosted by community leaders.

“It’s a comprehensive look at the systemic causes driving poverty and the challenges of poverty in Ozark Mountain country,” Hughes said.

In addition to Hughes, the panel lineup included Bryan Stallings, co-founder and CEO of Jesus was Homeless; John Baltes, president of the Silver Dollar City Foundation; and Chris Johnson, superintendent of Crane Public Schools.

When looking at those individuals in need, Hughes said, there are a lot of misconceptions about people in poverty.

“A lot of people who look at people in need may think ‘Well, they did it to themselves, they’re just lazy. If they would just pull themselves up by the bootstraps, their life could be different,” Hughes said. “But the reality is there is a lot there we may, or may not, know about what’s affected the trajectory of their lives.

“It’s up to us to dig down and find out who they are and help them. It’s unfortunate so many of our neighbors in need feel like they’re unloved, disliked, a stain on the community. We need to, as a community, show them it’s quite different.” 

When looking at those systemic issues in the community, Hughes said it ranges from things like a lack of jobs offering a living wage to affordable housing and public transportation.

“What I’m hearing are the challenges are transportation, affordable housing, wages, job opportunities,” Hughes said. “These are the real systemic causes that are causing need. If you don’t have transportation to work, if you don’t have a paying job, you’re ending up at a food pantry.”

In addition to the panel discussion, the event included featured speakers Ron Hall, a screenwriter and producer of the movie version of his book, Same Kind of Different As Me, and Alan Graham, founder and CEO of Mobile Loaves & Fishes.

Mindy Honey, director of community relations for Skaggs Foundation, said she was touched hearing from people on the front lines of combating poverty in the Tri-Lakes Area and what the community needs to do.

“Hearing from the front line people that it takes a mix of all us working together to lift people out of it is one of the biggest things,” Honey said.

Additionally, Honey said she’s hoping the summit will allow people to take a deeper look when addressing poverty in the community.

“People want to say ‘Oh you just need to get a job,’ but you need to dig deeper, pull back those layers and get at that root cause,” she said.

Tina Keith, a professor of education at College of the Ozarks, said that as an educator of future educators, the role of addressing the systemic issues of poverty can extend into the classroom.

“I taught in public school for 21 years prior to coming here, I taught elementary school and was dealing with students coming from poverty on a day-to-day basis,” Keith said. “Now I’m training teachers to make a difference in their classrooms. Being encouraged today helps me to know how to better train my students to make a difference in their classrooms.”

For more information, including a list of upcoming community forums, visit christianactionministries.org and click on the “Poverty Research” section.

“We’re going to numerous communities, we’re coming to you to offer the opportunity for your voice to be heard,” Hughes said. “What are the challenges? What are your successes? We want to hear from you. The intention is we get a good read on the state of the Ozarks and as a community, what challenge do we need to address first?”

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