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.
The conference on Nov. 5 invites people living around the poverty line to listen to Beegle and also meet with volunteers called “navigators” who help put them in touch with people who can help them. The summit will take place on Nov. 6.
“Beegle’s message on the day before, what she tells folks in poverty is to find resources, find relationships, find connections that can help you do better,” said Jim Rowlett, a member of PRI and an event organizer. “On the 6th she’s saying, ‘be one of those people that can help people do better and overcome the shortcomings they’ve had.’”
The people planning the opportunity days are focused on helping people get access to six essential life components: transportation, housing, energy, education, employment, and health.
At the conference, navigators drive progress.
“It’s about navigators being able to share address books and help someone who’s stuck ...,” said Mary Marois, a navigator and the former head of the Grand Traverse and Leelanau County Department of Human Services.
Marois easily recounts instances from past conferences: a man in his 40s who was a dishwasher at a Traverse City hotel but always wanted to be a mechanic. He kept failing the mechanic test because of his dyslexia, but once a navigator heard the story, the navigator told the man he was eligible to take the test orally. The man applied and passed.
Another woman wanted to go to Northwestern Michigan College but was denied because of an outstanding bill; navigators made a few calls to NMC administrators and she was admitted.
“The idea on the 6th is to talk about what’s come out of all this discussion and try to involve as many people in the community as possible in taking specific steps to improve circumstances in our community,” said Rowlett.
The Opportunity Conference will take place on Nov. 5 at the Bayview Wesleyan Church from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Light breakfast and lunch will be provided, but registration is required at (231) 929-5067. The Creating Opportunities Summit will take place on Nov. 6 at the Bayview Wesleyan Church from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Registration is required online.