Graduates recognized for progress toward financial stability
By Earle Kimel
SARASOTA — It was a time of cupcakes, clapping and celebration Wednesday evening for 20 household heads working their way to financial stability with the help of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, United Way Suncoast and other partners.
The celebration, hosted at the Salvation Army Center for Worship and Service, marked the end of an 11-month program that started in May — just the first step in a larger journey. In that time, 21-year-old Megan Rhodes and her son, Drake, 3, went from living at the Salvation Army Faith Program to their own place at Oakridge Apartments.
Once, commuting to her job at Detweiler’s on University meant taking eight buses and walking a mile so she could get Drake to day care. That all changed three weeks ago, when Rhodes bought a 2002 Dodge van.
Shilrnika Smith was struggling to make ends meet working in child care when her counselor with the Salvation Army’s Faith program suggested she look into the new Financial Sustainability Initiative.
“I’m actually glad I came because I learned so much from the program,’” said Smith, who has three children — Zendearean, 11, Nevaeh, 4, and Davion, 2 — and balances working in the deli at Winn-Dixie with studying to become an ultrasound technician.
“I learned more about the credit score, the credit report, which one is more important, my ‘spending leaks’ — I didn’t know what a spending leak was until I came to this course.”
Leaks, by the way, are “wants” such as cigarettes and gum, she noted.
The program includes 10 scheduled financial education workshops as well as weekly one-on-one meetings with coaches who act as financial mentors.
Smith’s mentor, Mike Halliday, who retired after 40 years in engineering with IBM, said she’s one of the more capable students he has. When they get together, they talk about finances or whatever’s on her mind.
Rhodes’ mentor, Sharon Noel, has at times been more of a big sister.
“She would take time out of her schedule just to meet up with me with my weird schedule, she’d sometimes come get me from work or she would even come get my son,” Rhodes said.
Noel also put Rhodes in contact with Holly Bullard, director of financial stability with the United Way, who helped her do two years of taxes that resulted in her receiving $6,200 back as an earned income tax credit.
About $1,800 of that went straight into an account at Iberia Bank.
Gulf Coast is matching the first $500 deposited in accounts each participant has set up there. The rest went into a savings account for Drake.
Those choices are in keeping with the main program goal, to help struggling families learn how to make sound financial choices and eventually become self-sufficient.
Participants in the program are referred by partner organizations such as The Salvation Army’s Sarasota Area Command and Harvest House Transitional Centers.
According to statistics provided by the Gulf Coast Foundation, all members of this class have created and reviewed family budgets, 95 percent had avoided payday loans and 80 percent have a checking account in good standing.
About 45 percent also have found and secured housing, while 30 percent have received a promotion or raise at work.
About a quarter of the participants have bought a car, enrolled in health insurance or educations courses — including GED, ESL or community college.
While Smith is studying to be an ultrasound tech, Rhodes said she is eyeing classes that would let her become an accountant.
“I’m going for accounting because that’s the next job area where I can get into any business,” Rhodes said, “and I can make money for my son.”