Written by Avigail Oren
On a spring day in 2015, Sacoyia Reed volunteered to prep flowerbeds for planting at her children’s school. What she did not realize was that she was also planting seeds that would grow into a new, supportive community that would help her achieve her dream of becoming a homeowner.
At the time, Sacoyia and her three teenage children were living with her mother in a small home. Sacoyia worried that once her mother got married she would have to find a new place for her family to live—an expensive, possibly unaffordable, undertaking. While she worked on the flowerbeds, a fellow parent who knew about her situation kindly asked her how she was doing. As Sacoyia recalls, the friend said to her, “you know, you were trying to buy a house, I remember you talking about it—you should talk to my husband.” With that, the seed was planted. The friend’s husband worked with the staff of Open Hand Ministries (OHM) at East Liberty Development, Inc., and over a pasta dinner one evening at their house Sacoyia learned how OHM and their Circles program could help her become a homeowner.
Open Hand Ministries, founded by four churches in Garfield and East Liberty, works with families to build wealth that they can invest in homes in the neighborhood. OHM helps families find vacant homes that can be rehabilitated, with the goal of building equity for the new homeowner and fighting back against the social inequality of the housing market. With the prompting of these supportive friends, Sacoyia submitted an application to join Circles as a Circle Leader. Circles is a national program with four sites meeting in the Greater Pittsburgh area. Circles builds supportive relationships between low-income families (Circle Leaders) and middle/upper-income community members (Circle Allies). Leaders, in partnership with their Allies and OHM staff, set goals and create plans to move towards financial stability.
At first, Sacoyia felt wary about the program. Would it really be able to help her? The first time she met with OHM’s Family Development Coordinator, Tammy Thompson, her skepticism melted away. “I immediately liked Tammy,” Sacoyia recalls, and at their first meeting she recognized “that this lady knows what she’s talking about, and she’s really nice.” Motivated to try out the program, she began attending Circles meetings each Tuesday night for Circle Leader training. After a few weeks, she had a realization that would change her entire perspective about her financial life:
“They started talking about not just your goals for right now, or not just being a homeowner, but what’s your plan for your life? And you don’t always think about that. People have 1 year, 3 year, 5 year, maybe 10 year plans, but nobody’s planning for twenty years down the road, or in 7 years when their kid is about to go to college. So me, personally, I started to have a different mindset. Unless I plan to keep living day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month, I better get my act together.”
After an intensive training and matching process, Sacoyia gained three allies—Lisa Tannenbaum, Nicholas Tutolo, and Stephen Gilson—who committed to supporting her as she worked towards financial sustainability and homeownership. Sacoyia found herself on a team with a deep bench, as her allies have expertise in human resources, teaching, and law. With their knowledge and experience, Sacoyia’s circle was ready to tackle her debt, help her find new work opportunities, and navigate any legal issues they encountered on the way to buying a home.
Ally Lisa Tannenbaum was drawn to Circles after attending a poverty simulation that the program ran at the Jewish Community Center. The experience was so profound that she left feeling like she had to get involved with the community. Despite having young children, running a small business, and serving on the boards of several community organizations, for Lisa “the pull of OHM’s mission and vision was way too strong, and I had to make the time.” As for ally Nicholas Tutolo, a teacher and innovative disruptor, Sacoyia jokes, “he came to Circles because he heard about it and then never stopped coming.”
Allies share their professional expertise, networks, education, and financial experience with Circle Leaders, but even more importantly they provide emotional and strategic support. At the first matched circle night, Sacoyia began to run through the barriers she was facing. Before they left that evening, the four of them created a list of ten solutions to all of the issues that Sacoyia needed to fix if she wanted to meet her goal of buying a home. One of her biggest challenges was debt. Between an expensive monthly car payment and student loans, too much of her money was going towards interest. Lisa’s husband, a financial planner, helped Sacoyia find a way to pay off her debt so she could begin saving money for a mortgage down payment.
Eliminating debt was a huge victory for Sacoyia, but she has continued to rely on her allies throughout her journey towards financial sustainability. “Part of the trauma of living check-to-check, being the sole provider, and growing up in poverty,” Sacoyia notes, is that “you are always waiting for the other shoe to drop.” For the first time she has “no more fires, nothing for me to put out or fix,” and has money that can be used for entertainment or shopping. To keep her accountable and on-track with her savings, she and her allies created a checklist of ten things to do when she has an urge to spend. It hangs in her kitchen and reminds her of her large goals: to be a homeowner, to become a certified cardiac nurse, and to start two businesses. As her ally Lisa says, “she has clear goals in her mind, and it’s my responsibility to be supportive and encouraging and help where I can.”
Sacoyia’s circle has now been together for 18 months, and with their support she paid off $47,000 of debt and raised her credit score by 80 points. In August, she began looking at houses with the OHM staff and found a potential property to purchase as her very first home. While this goal is still taking root and will continue to sprout and grow, Sacoyia’s circle has bloomed into a tight-knit friendship within the broader Circles community. “I consider Sacoiya a very good friend,” Lisa says, and “I see her more than I see most of my friends.”
Sacoyia and her circle recognize that none of this would be possible without OHM. The work of Open Hand Ministries, Lisa believes, is “needed and extremely beneficial to our communities.” For Sacoyia, working with OHM to achieve her dream means she is “not out in the cold fighting against a system that is not for the consumer, trying to buy a home at market value.” “Historically, in my age bracket is when African Americans are ready to buy a home,” she points out, “but being a women, being an African American, coming from the background I come from, I’m definitely a predator’s dream.” By purchasing a house in partnership with OHM, Sacoyia knows that she has a team to teach, support, and advocate for her through the process. As soon as she reaches her savings goal, which she hopes will be in the next few months, OHM will begin construction on her family’s forever home.