When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Doug and Alyce Sanders and their four children were living in a hotel in Stafford County.

Life was a tangle of stressors with one overarching worry—would they be able to cobble together enough money from Doug’s construction job to pay the rent that week?

“We were always stressed,” Doug Sanders said. “I was doing everything I could except for committing a crime to stay alive. Something had to change.”

Last year, something did change—Sanders was laid off from his job during the lockdown and the family could no longer afford the hotel room.

“With four kids, we had no place to go,” he said. “I made the phone call [to the Thurman Brisben Center] and got lucky.”

Some might say that living in a homeless shelter was a low point in their lives. For the Sanderses, it was an opportunity to pause, take a breath and “reprogram our whole lives,” Alyce Sanders said. “We got a chance and we ran with it.”

The Sanderses credit the Brisben Center’s Mobility Mentoring program with helping them escape poverty.

With guidance and cheerleading from their volunteer mentors, Rick Nehrboss and Chantel Brooks, they have moved their family out of the shelter and into an apartment of their own in Fredericksburg.

Doug Sanders has a job in construction, making an hourly wage that is $6 more than it was before the pandemic, and Alyce Sanders is enrolled in Germanna Community College’s nursing program.

“The secret sauce is that [Mobility Mentoring] is putting participants in the driver’s seat,” said Elisabeth Babcock, president and CEO of Economic Mobility Pathways—or EMPath—the Boston-based nonprofit that developed the Mobility Mentoring program.

“[Participants] know what their challenges are and what their goals are,” Babcock said in an interview with The Free Lance–Star. “The mentors help the participants do what they want to do anyway—not what they are told to do.”

Babcock said Mobility Mentoring developed out of “an embarrassment.” In 2006, shortly after joining EMPath, she was tasked with finding a person who had successfully moved out of poverty to speak at an annual fundraising luncheon.

“I couldn’t find one,” she said. “There was not one that we had helped move completely out of poverty. That made me sit down and rethink our approach, and after years of research, we came up with this.”

Mobility Mentoring—which was implemented in 2009 and is now being used globally by both EMPath and community partners such as the Brisben Center to assist more than 2 million participants, according to EMPath’s website—is based on research into how the brain functions under stress.

Research has found that stress impairs some of the executive functions—a term referring to a set of mental skills that are required to plan, focus, follow directions and handle emotions.

Specifically, stress negatively affects working memory, flexible thinking and the ability to focus on a task, according to a 2016 analysis of multiple studies into the affects of stress on the brain published in the journal Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews.

“[Poverty] is a battle on multiple fronts—shelter, health, money, education, career,” Babcock said. “You need strong decision-making skills to attack these instead of just playing whack-a-mole.”

Yet the stress of poverty impairs the executive function required to plan such a multipronged attack.

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