TRAVERSE CITY — Paula “La” Fekken used to live in an unstable, falling apart house, working third shift jobs while she tried to make ends meet and take care of her four sons during the day as her husband worked.
Each year, Fekken attended a conference aimed at helping people out of poverty, but it wasn’t until she went to the third one and closely listened to the speaker that the message began to sink in.
Keynote speaker and national authority on poverty Donna Beegle speaks at the Opportunity Conference every year, including an upcoming one next week. Beegle, an Ed.D., dropped out of school to get married at 15 and lived in poverty for years before getting her life on track. She encourages people at the conference to continue to engage with their communities.
That struck a chord with Fekken.
“She says don’t take no for an answer and just keep asking, because somebody’s got to have the right answer to give you to get where you want to be,” said Fekken. “A lot of times you think, ‘I’m poor and nobody cares what I think,’ so you can beat yourself up a lot, but shes says suck it up and go for it.”
Donna inspired Fekken to attend her neighborhood Northwest Michigan Community Action Agency meetings. At one meeting, a representative from the Michigan State Housing Development Authority told the group about low-income home improvement loans. Fekken signed up, but when the MSHDA representative saw Fekken’s house, the representative decided to get her in touch with Habitat for Humanity.
Now Fekken lives in a Habitat house, the old one condemned, and runs the Interlochen Center for the Arts mailroom.
The Traverse Bay Poverty Reduction Initiative and the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments organized the sixth annual “Opportunities Conference” in the hopes of helping others like Fekken. This year the group is also hosting a “Creating Opportunities Summit” aimed at an audience of community members who want to help people living in poverty.