Area Organizations Team-up to Bring Financial Literacy and Support to Athens-Area Residents

Since its inception, AACF has served as a conduit for a wide variety of groups in our community with similar interests and shared visions. Two perennial areas of focus have been financial literacy and education, and, since 2011, AACF has brought together a collection of non-profits whose purpose has been to educate local residents in the finer points of financial empowerment so that they can gain the tools to support themselves and their families. These combined efforts have resulted in programs that provide free tax return assistance to individuals and families with low to moderate income, continuing education courses on budgeting, buying, banking, and borrowing, and intensive one-on-one counseling on financial planning. The collaborative effort is a powerful step towards pushing back at the debilitating cycle of scarcity so prominent in our community.

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It’s a Tuesday afternoon, and a new cohort of Money Management students has taken their seats in class. Today’s subject is budgeting, a vital tool in combating the cycle of scarcity. Recognizing the power of financial literacy and education in providing local residents with the tools to support themselves and their families, a group of Athens Area non-profits has teamed together to help create initial avenues for financial empowerment.

With its special position as an organization that works to support other groups, the Athens Area Community Foundation has played a key role in connecting organizations who share an interest in financial advocacy and education. Since 2011, the AACF has convened a local group of working non-profits aimed at promoting financial literacy for local residents. Out of this network grew the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program, a partnership between Action Ministries, Hancock Community Development Corporation, and UGA’s Financial Planning Program, with support from the AACF and a generous donation from the Athens First Bank and Trust Donor Advised Fund. The program extends free tax return assistance to individuals and families with low to moderate income and saves them from losing large percentages of their income to commercial tax preparation sites and refund anticipation loans (RALs).

Now entering its third year, the VITA program utilizes students and skilled volunteers with expertise in social work and financial planning to provide tax assistance and on-the-spot financial education, aimed at helping clients make self-sustaining financial decisions. VITA operates out of the Action Ministries site, which is conveniently located in downtown Athens, within walking distance of VITA’s target demographic. The site houses five workstations where each client is assisted by two UGA students with expertise in financial planning, tax preparation, and social work. In 2015, the new site is expected to serve 125 individuals (with a capacity to serve up to 360 tax filers), giving Athens a return between $250,000 and $792,000 without the cost of commercial tax preparation.

In addition to tax services, the financial literacy collaborative is advancing a broader network of financial education services including an on-going series of classes called Money Matters supported by Athens Area Homeless Shelter, the Ark, and Action Ministries. The classes take place at Action on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1:30 p.m. – 3:30 p.m. over a two-and-half week period. Students attend four class sessions which each cover one of these four topic areas: budgeting, buying, banking, and borrowing. The series, taught by volunteers from local banks, will conclude with a review and celebration for all participants.

Through Money Matters, students develop a series of skills related to budgeting and money management which they are able to put into effect through the VITA program. According to Solomon Smothers, Program Direct for Action Ministries, the initial block of classes is a gateway to better financial understanding and ownership over personal finances. For Smothers, one of the best parts of the money management program is watching the students grow and develop interest in learning more about finances. He adds that you can often see a clear transition from a fear of discussing finances to an excitement about credit histories, loans and budgets, and other financial matters. The confidence gained through the classes translates to other areas as students begin to believe in their ability to rent apartments, purchase transportation, and reduce financial stresses. According to Lucy Hudgins of Ark Ministries, another partner in the financial advocacy network, “The Money Management Classes and one-on-one sessions have had a significant impact on our clients. It has provided the opportunity for our working neighbors to take a look at their financial situation and learn the necessary steps to achieve self-sustainability. Once our neighbors get a glimpse of their income and expenses, they become empowered to work towards making each dollar count and finding solutions and steps to savings and financial freedom.”

For more in-depth support, Athens Area Homeless Shelter, the Ark, and Action Ministries offer an intensive financial planning program in which participants receive three months of one-on-one counseling. According to Hudgins, the program has far-reaching implications. “By increasing our financial support,” she notes, “financial literacy efforts and providing more opportunities for learning and growth, we empower our neighbors to achieve long term self-sufficiency while increasing personal accountability and decreasing dependency.”

All three programs–one-on-one counseling, group classes, and VITA–not only build financial skills but also relationships and trust with clients. Each program is an entry point that offers an opportunity for reciprocal relationships between organizations that may refer clients to one another for specific services. The collaboration of financial advocates has recently expanded to include the Compassion Network, a joint effort between churches and non-profits who provide financial assistance to families in need. The group already utilizes Charity Tracker, a database software system by Simon Solutions, to track who is receiving financial assistance. Now, with the availability of Money Matters, one-on-one counseling, and VITA, the Compassion Network members have committed to doing more than tracking charity; they’re also referring clients to wealth building programs. “Every organization can’t be expected to meet every need, but, as a community, we should expect every organization to know the full landscape of services to best help their clients succeed,” says Delene Porter, AACF’s President/CEO. In 2015, AACF will continue to work with the financial literacy collaborative to implement programs that help families escape the cycle of scarcity.

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