Created: 07/24/2014 11:12 PM KAALtv.com
By: John Doetkott
(ABC 6 News) -- Southeastern Minnesota has some of the highest poverty rates in the state, but one local county is taking a new approach to combat the issue.
Freeborn County is launching a new initiative called Leaders Partnering to End Poverty, or LPEP, to help change the way the community views the issue of poverty.
"It's changing people's perspective and it's helping educate people about what it's actually like to live in poverty nowadays,” said Ann Austin, an LPEP committee member and executive director of the United Way of Freeborn County.
In the county, estimates on the poverty rate range from just over 11 percent to 23 percent, but those involved with the issue say it's more nuanced than the numbers may suggest.
"In reality, each family and individual that experiences poverty is unique,” said Amy Gauthier, an LPEP committee member who works at the Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce. “Each situation is different, so as much of a blanket word as poverty is, it's not the reality."
That's why the group wants everyone in the community, from businesses to schools, and from city leaders to community members, to join together to help tackle the problem.
"Everybody needs to be engaged in the conversation,” Austin said. “It's not just up to these programs to find solutions, it's up to all of us."
Unfortunately, the one voice that often goes unheard is that of impoverished people themselves.
Experts said many people have too much pride to come forward in a time of need and are therefore inadvertently left out of discussions that could affect their lives.
“Lessening that stigma a bit so people feel a little more free to discuss their situation and use their resources, I think that that's going to help tremendously,” Gauthier said.
Group leaders said the goal is to assess which community programs are working well and which can be improved so that everyone can succeed.
"If we can bring more people out of poverty, then we will have a better economy, we will have better communities," Austin said.
If you would like to get involved, the group will hold their next public meeting on August 7th at 6:30 p.m. in the Fairlane Building at the Freeborn County Fairgrounds.