Education proves key to financial success

November 01, 2017 | GET MORE : Community

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How this Cleveland nonprofit's financial literacy program is helping people build up savings, reduce debt and improve credit.

Cleveland nonprofit Empowering and Strengthening Ohio's People has become a community cornerstone over the past two decades thanks to a steadfast focus on its clients' futures.

ESOP, whose mission is centered on sustainable economic empowerment, provides low- to moderate-income Cleveland residents with a variety of outreach, education and advocacy services. Those services include free tax preparation assistance, which last year the organization found to be an opportunity for improvement as the refunds it was helping clients earn were only short-term boons often spent when or before they were received.

"How can we make this a teachable moment?" ESOP Associate Director Mike Billnitzer recalled asking, knowing how few of the people their team worked with every day had emergency savings.

To address the problem, ESOP partnered with U.S. Bank last year to create the Learn and Earn Account Program (LEAP), in which the organization's clients can earn up to $500 in matched savings if they complete financial education classes over the course of a year. In the program's first year, its 19 graduates on average increased their savings by $900, decreased their debt by $1,500 and improved their credit score by 20 points.

"The education component is a difference-maker," said Alicia Townsend, community development manager for U.S. Bank, which has donated nearly $50,000 to fund the program as part of its Community Possible giving platform. "Through LEAP, ESOP is providing opportunities for people to check off short-term goals while building a foundation for long-term financial success."

LEAP has been a life-changer for Clevelanders such as 70-year-old James Moore. When Moore came to ESOP for tax prep help, he was able to afford basic necessities but was in a tough financial position which threatened his ability to age in place after retirement. As a result of the program's financial education sessions, he was able to pay off his car debt, increase his savings by nearly $1,400 and boost his credit score by 43 points in just a year. Most importantly, the program paved the way for Moore to confidently step into the next phase of his life: retirement.

Moore is one of 19 success stories from year one, but what sticks with ESOP Financial Counseling Director Sonya Edwards is how the group grew together, developing a rapport and building trust in each other. 

"To have them all together at graduation, sharing in each other's joy, was the icing on the cake," said Edwards.

"I remember standing with Sonya, Alicia and [Executive Director] Roz Quarto and saying, 'We did a good thing,'" Billnitzer added.

Pat Swanson is in public affairs and communications at U.S. Bank. Last month, ESOP recognized the bank's partnership in creating LEAP with the "Above & Beyond Award" at its annual luncheon. Pictured above accepting the award, from left to right: U.S. Bank Market President Alan Zang, U.S. Bank Branch Manager La'Shanya Moorer and Townsend, with ESOP Executive Director Roslyn Quarto.