In our home, we are teaching our kids financial responsibility at ages 13, 11 and 7. We give the girls a weekly allowance based on their age and capabilities because we want them to feel what it’s like to work hard for something, not just be given magic dollars from what they perceive as our seemingly bottomless purse and wallet. They are learning the value of money and the rewards of hard work and independence. These are life lessons that take effort to master, so our goal has been to start them on this path sooner rather than later. But as I learned from First Federal Savings Bank, it’s never too late to start!
The bridge from financial dependence to independence is never an easy one. The reasons for true poverty are all different, as each person and life circumstance is unique. Once someone is stuck in that cycle of poverty, it is increasingly difficult to pull out of it and provide a better life for the following generations. There are several low-income families in the inner city of South Bend who are crossing that bridge out of poverty and into financial security. Many of these families have been stuck in the cycles of poverty for generations and are making their way out with the help of First Federal Savings Bank and their Financial Literacy program.
Monroe Circle Financial Literacy Program
First Federal Savings Bank decided they wanted to share their expertise in financial management and donate time, resources and training to help bridge the gap out of poverty for people living in low-income housing around South Bend.
Romy Shortz, compliance officer for First Federal Savings ensures that First Federal Savings is giving back to the community in accordance with the Community Relations Act. According to this act, banks have to do some sort of community outreach such as teaching finances to those with low income. First Federal Savings has found their new “home” in the inner city of South Bend, and has immersed time, resources and volunteers at Monroe Circle and Edison Gardens Community Centers in South Bend. They showed up with knowledge and resources to share, never dreaming how significant an impact their students would have in their own lives.
Under the leadership of Romy Shortz and Maribeth Roncz, Financial Literacy volunteer program coordinator, the bank began teaching a financial literacy course at the Monroe Circle Community Center in downtown South Bend. The program has had remarkable results so far. It started last October and has been running a full year with almost a hundred participants between the children, teens and adults.
After a participant has completed three weeks of training, they are given $50 for their own new savings account, held by First Federal Savings. After every three weeks of attendance and completed materials, they are given another $50, so at the end of the 13 week course, the participants have $150 in a savings account, much more than most of them have ever had in a bank account of any kind.
The training is not just for adults. First Federal Savings also has a program for young children. They meet once a week for a story hour and are taught the importance of financial management at their age level. They are challenged each week to complete their school work or do extra chores to help out at home. When they accomplish tasks, they are given “play money” for a store that is set up with little trinkets they can buy with their play money. The prizes range from little token toys to bigger, more expensive items that a child can save up to purchase. One 6-year-old student asked if First Federal Savings could please put press-on nails in the store because she really wanted them.
Teenagers in these low-income areas are also encouraged to participate in the Financial Literacy program. They are given the opportunity to earn money toward a real savings account just like the adults, only they have the chance to make some extra cash on Thursday nights babysitting for the children of the parents attending the Financial Literacy adult classes.
One of the things that employees of First Federal Savings did not expect in volunteering for this program was the relationships that would result after leading discussion groups at the same tables with the same people for the 13-week course. The evening always starts with a meal provided by First Federal Savings, so there is a time to get to know each other over these shared meals and to discuss what is being taught, how the lessons are affecting their lives, and what changes they are going to make as a result.
One young woman with children was in an abusive relationship with a man she was living with. By the end of the 13-week course, she had built up confidence in her own abilities to escape her financial situation. She found the emotional support she needed from the table group she met with on a weekly basis at the community center and ended up leaving the man who was abusing her. She said that she could not have done it without the confidence gained from attending the class.
Another individual was living at the Center for the Homeless when he began the course. At the end of the course, he got a job, was able to set aside enough money to get his own apartment and moved in. His friends were so happy for him that two separate individuals gave him a television set for his new apartment. Since he had two, he gave one away. He told Maribeth Roncz, First Federal Savings volunteer, that he could not believe the great feeling he had when he was able to give away something that was his. He was never able to do that before, and that was truly a remarkable feeling.
Cathi Mills, a First Federal Savings employee from the Plymouth branch fell in love with the children in her Financial Literacy kids group. She and her family have built strong bonds with them and have even taken them on a day trip to the Plymouth race car park.
For the employees at First Federal Savings, the Financial Literacy program started out as something they “had to” do, but has turned out to be something they are passionate about, look forward to and give hours of their own time and resources to help run. They are excited to see the changes in the lives of the low-income families they are equipping with new financial skills.
One of the younger girls in the teen program proudly explained that she is not going to spend her money for a really long time, so she can save a whole lot of money.
“That,” Romy Shortz smiled and said, “is why we do what we do.”
This article appears in the November edition of Michiana Family magazine.