WINTERPORT — Until two years ago, I struggled with chronic homelessness, underemployment and the inability to pay my bills.

My childhood included nine years in foster care, and despite working hard, I could not seem to gain independence in my life. In 2013, I left my abusive ex-husband and lost my job three months later. But at the unemployment office, I was awarded a spot in a program called the Competitive Skills Scholarship Program to go back to school, and the scholarship was critical to my college success and my ability to finally escape poverty.

I put in a lot of hard work to get to where I am, but I’m also fortunate because Maine helped sustain me and my three kids with food, housing, heating and child care assistance while I was in school.

I’m now fully independent and supporting my family working as a clinical researcher, and my work is contributing to Maine’s fight against opioid abuse. I am working toward getting a doctorate, and I feel great about the ways I can support and give back to my community.

Our state can open doors to a better future for people with low-incomes, and yet thousands of needy families and individuals have lost the kinds of supports that made my success possible – because of mismanagement and bad policies at the Department of Health and Human Services.

That’s why I’m joining with a group of advocates who care about the role DHHS has in the futures of Mainers who need a helping hand to achieve independence like my family has.

In March, DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew and top members of her staff sat down with a group of reform advocates at the department. They listened and expressed real empathy as we shared difficult stories. They are committed to ongoing dialogue and accountability within their department.

Leadership at DHHS has changed tremendously, and I believe it’s for the better. Now begins the hard work of changing the culture and rules of the department. DHHS has just emerged from eight years of the LePage administration, whose policies took a “shame and blame” approach to people seeking food, shelter and health care, and chronically underfunded and understaffed the agency.

DHHS has hours-long wait times on the phone and at their offices, routinely loses paperwork and regularly treats people accessing services without courtesy or dignity. Workers need training to support all qualified applicants equally, regardless of their language, what country they came from or their race. And the ASPIRE program, formerly administered by our DHHS, is now contracted to Fedcap, a private, out-of-state company that is mismanaging food and income supports for Mainers seeking work opportunities.

With DHHS’ willingness to consider reform comes an opportunity to lead the nation in more ways than just the first sunshine. Maine can be a model of compassion and support for the most vulnerable among us, so that they too can contribute to their communities and fully participate in making our state “the way life should be.”

This is not just the right thing to do for Maine families, it’s also the smart thing to do for Maine. Poverty impacts our education system, our health system, our workforce and our economy.

People with experiences like mine are willing to work to help make this change at DHHS because we have seen the difference that real support can make. We need our friends, colleagues and neighbors who care about how low-income people are treated to join us in this effort.

Maine invested in me, and, as a result, my oldest child is applying to college. I am determined that she won’t experience poverty like I did. After a tremendous journey in which I seemingly fell through every crack and cried a thousand tears, the cycle of poverty ends with me.

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