Visitors to Smith Mountain Lake may get the impression that there is virtually no poverty in the area; however, nothing could be further from the truth.

As the national poverty rate (12 percent) has remained steady over the past decade, the rate in the three counties surrounding the lake has increased, according to Jane Winters, executive director of Lake Christian Ministries.

For nearly three decades, Lake Christian Ministries has provided food, clothing and emergency financial aid to families in the lake community. And while these short-term solutions have proved helpful, LCM’s board of directors recognized that more needed to be done, which led to the formation of the New Tomorrows program in 2015.

“It grew out of a reality that providing food, clothing and crisis financial aid, which were provided at LCM for 25 years, doesn’t necessarily evoke change in a person or lift them out of poverty,” Winters said. “New Tomorrows will help those ready to make change possible.”

New Tomorrows has three main elements: recruiting and training volunteer partners to work with program participants (LCM refers to them as neighbors), working with area employers to identify job opportunities and providing educational tools to improve self-sufficiency skills.

Partners are paired with a neighbor and are responsible for encouraging their neighbors, providing resources and guidance and, when needed, giving them a gentle nudge forward.

Terri Ransome is one of the neighbors in the New Tomorrows program. Earlier this year, Ransome went to LCM needing help.

“I was in a really bad place when I went there,” she said, recalling her first visit to LCM. “I was made to feel welcome. I left with a car full of groceries and made to feel like everything was going to be OK.”

After being referred to the New Tomorrows program, she was paired with her partner, Roy Brooks. “They just don’t get any better than that,” Ransome said of Brooks. “He was encouraging, full of wisdom and positive. He said to me, ‘You know, we’re going to make some stuff happen.’ ”

One of the current educational tools for New Tomorrows is “Getting Ahead in a Just Getting by World,” a course that helps people in poverty to build resources for a more prosperous life for themselves and their families.

Held each Wednesday night for 16 weeks at Bethlehem United Methodist Church, the curriculum takes participants through a self-discovery process that allows them to examine their own experiences with poverty (and issues related to poverty), to create self-empowerment tools and to give them plans to work toward self-sufficiency. LCM neighbors and their partners attend the weekly classes together, as well as the meals that are offered beforehand.

Ransome said the class has helped her tremendously. “I’m now using a budget,” she said. “I have the knowledge to budget wisely.”

By being in class with other New Tomorrows neighbors, Ransome said she doesn’t feel isolated in her situation and has made many new friends. “That can be encouraging to know you’re not the only one out there,” she said.

Since that first visit to LCM, Ransome is now employed part time and has a side cleaning job that provides her with a steady income.

“I’ve never found an organization like Lake Christian Ministries,” she said. “They gave me the hope that things were going to improve. When somebody believes in you it’s a lot easier to accomplish.”

Relationship building is the linchpin to the program’s success, according to Susan Hughes, who was hired by LCM to serve as New Tomorrows’ program director. “A lot of people in poverty might not have the best support system,” she said.

The program helps participants build that support system by providing a trained, empathetic partner and offering them the opportunity to build relationships with other neighbors in the program, Hughes said.

Although the Getting Ahead class lasted only 16 weeks, Hughes has kept the connection with New Tomorrows’ neighbors going with other classes, including “Eat Smart, Move More” that promotes healthy eating, active living, safe food handling along with tips for thrifty food shopping, as well as another class on money management.

“We wanted to continue to offer classes that gave us some connection through the summer between the Getting Ahead classes,” Hughes said. “Since supportive relationships are a big factor in the ability for people to make lasting change, we wanted to continue to provide a supportive community where individuals could tie in while learning and building their resources.”

Sarah DeLeon credits New Tomorrows with not only helping her get her life back on track, but also with making new friends. “I didn’t realize I would meet others in the same situation. I’ve made some great friends,” she said. “Our partners are so involved and go to great lengths to help us toward our goals. We love the program.”

Lisa Corinha moved to the area in January with her 12-year-old daughter after recognizing the need to make a radical change in her life. “I have a wonderful partner who helps me feel optimistic about the future,” she said, adding that her partner provides her with encouragement, connections for job interviews and helps with insurance problems.

Corinha also found employment as a pharmacy technician at a local grocery store and has aspirations of attending nursing school to become a licensed practical nurse.

Based on the positive results of the New Tomorrows program during its initial four years, plans are to expand the program to accommodate more participants in the future. It will also include a partners mentoring process, more educational and lifestyle improvement classes and job readiness and placement services.

Most recently, LCM hired Angela Hill to work with Hughes and serve as coordinator for the New Tomorrows program.

“We are moving from a transaction-based program to one based on relationships,” Winters said. “That’s why we hired Susan Hughes as New Tomorrows’ program director; we’re advancing to the next phase of New Tomorrows.”

The next class of “The Getting Ahead in a Just Getting by World” will start Sept. 4, followed by another class in January.

Hughes encourages anyone interested in becoming a partner with New Tomorrows to contact her at lcmntdr@gmail.com or 540-297-3214.

“We are always looking for additional partners; someone who is willing to listen and help guide a neighbor toward his or her goals,” she said.