By Fred Durso, Jr.
For years, Pacita Bradford felt as if she was fighting a losing battle. Like many Americans, she succumbed to the allure of credit cards, the “swipe now, pay later” procedure; it was too enticing to pass up. It wasn’t long before Bradford was inundated in a sea of debt—stemming from six pieces of plastic.
“I said enough is enough,” says the retired resident from Mattapan. “I can’t take it anymore.”
Through her church, she discovered Moving from Debt to Assets, a program that tackles monetary hardships with financial education classes and peer support groups. Bradford unwillingly attended her first class last year. “I felt hopeless,” says the 62-year-old. “I didn’t believe [the program] could do anything for me.”
Now she realizes, her initial assumption was incorrect. A recent graduate of the program, Bradford has already paid off four of her credit cards—a total of nearly $1,500. She’s sticking to a monthly budget and plans to pay off her remaining two cards by next year. Though on a fixed income, she’s now able to funnel dollars into an “emergency” savings account.
“I was drowning, and [the program] got me up,” she says. “I now spend money on what I need and not what I want.”
How did all of these accomplishments occur within such a short time-frame? A big part of Bradford’s solution was the program, which began in October 2005 and has graduated 479 participants. But to program director Joel Schwartz, the graduates deserve most of the credit; they are the ones taking control of their monetary situation. Effectively combining financial classes, counseling, and peer support, Moving From Debt to Assets provides the tools for a debt-free life. And since classes are taught in English, Spanish, Haitian Creole, and Cape Verdean Creole, language barriers shouldn’t deter community members from the Boston area from participating.
Five years ago, the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO), a nonprofit that addresses social justice issues by organizing its 66 member institutions, hosted house meetings to discuss some of society’s ills.
“The same theme kept recurring. People were saying, ‘I’m drowning in credit card debt. I can’t make ends meet,’” Schwartz says. “So we asked ourselves, is there a way to deliver something to folks who are being affected by this?”
After some brainstorming sessions, GBIO came up with the answer to this question and the program was born. The next hurdle was finding the funds—and the power—to make it a reality. According to Schwartz, power consists of “organized people and organized money.” Since GBIO has 50,000 members, the people were in place. And after surveying GBIO’s 66 institutions, GBIO discovered that their funds collectively totaled $75 million.
“Suddenly, people started looking at themselves in a very different way,” he says.
Citizens Bank was the largest single institution, and it held the largest share of this money. A discussion was initiated with the bank, which was happy to work with GBIO, and in the end, GBIO was rewarded with a $500,000 grant to start the program. All of the pieces were now in place.
Financial education classes, the first component of the course, started in 2005 and cover such topics as goal setting, creating a budget, understanding credit, and wise use of banking services. Schwartz notes that instructors make it a point to highlight the importance of a phone call: a conversation with creditors can reduce interest rates or waive confusing fees found on statements. Following each class (classes typically meet once a week for six weeks), students may make use of a peer support group. Typically, support group meetings include group problem-solving where another participant provides support or advice. Schwartz recalls a participant who was distraught since her car kept breaking down and she couldn’t find a reliable mechanic. Another group member responded by recommending her trusted mechanic.
“People can help each other. You don’t have to be an expert to solve your problems,” Schwartz says. “You need all the help you can get with this. The good news is there is help at hand. In this program, the help is all around you.” Bradford enjoyed the support group, since it provided comfort during a very trying time. “I was getting overwhelmed,” she says. “But they helped me get through it. I realized we’re all in this together.”
Three sessions with a professional financial counselor help students maintain both long- and short-term goals. And graduates are awarded $500 to get started on their road to recovery.
“What we set out to do with this program has occurred, but what has happened in addition is that people have used the program to do the things they already knew they needed to do before walking in the door,” says Schwartz, citing the creation of a budget as an example. And it seems that the lessons learned stay with students after class. Case in point: Schwartz recalls an incident where a graduate was perusing a local clothing store and came across an appealing blouse. Waiting in the cashier line, she heard the voice of her instructor in her head, asking her, “Is that a want or a need?” Looking at the shirt and realizing she had many others at home, she left the store without making a purchase.
“If people start hearing the voices of their teachers in their head, I know we’re doing something right,” Schwartz says.
While Schwartz would love to expand the program’s reach, lack of funding has stymied such growth. “It’s been hard to raise funds to support this program,” he says. “All potential funders agree this program is doing great things and is effective, but it’s been hard to get funding. Much of my time has to go toward that rather than starting new classes or reaching out to other groups.” Despite this roadblock, the program is still the leading organization in the Boston area conducting financial education for the Haitian community in Haitian Creole. It is also one of only two U.S. programs disseminating financial education to the group in this language.
For Schwartz, it’s essential that he continually connect with the communities he serves, since residents are the backbone of this program. More than 50 graduates have served as support group facilitators; other community members serve as volunteers, something he would like to expand.
“I’ve just met so many good people as a part of this,” he says. “Those connections are so important.”
Similar to other graduates, Bradford now closely monitors her spending. She is no longer at the mercy of creditors and smiles more because of it. It’s people like Pacita Bradford who fuel Schwartz’s passion for continued success.
“There are a lot of things that can bring you down in this world,” he says. “There’s a lot that can really make you depressed. But when I see someone move forward, that just lifts me up.”
To read more about Moving From Debt to Assets program and learn more about Joel Schwartz, click here to read excerpts from NPi’s community dialogue in which Schwartz participated.
How to Get Involved:
Visit Moving From Debt to Assets online at www.gbio.org. To become a volunteer, please contact Joel Schwartz directly at 617.953.8487.