SOMERTON, Ariz.. - Whenever they start giving out awards for community commitment, the $208 million AEA Federal Credit Union of nearby Yuma certainly ranks at the top. That's because AEA is the only financial institution in this Mexican border town of 7,500 with an astonishing unemployment rate of 53%. The lone bank in Somerton, a former Wells Fargo/National Bank of Arizona branch, closed its doors six years ago after deciding a facility in this Latino community was not worth the trouble. "Look, this branch with its high check volume and low balances has barely been able to break even over the years or operated at a slight loss, but that doesn't give us an excuse to bail out," declared AEA's defiant president and CEO, Ken Bredemeyer. Adds Bredemeyer, "You know this business is not always about making money, sometimes it's about building respect and giving something back to the community." On that front, the Somerton branch through its 12-member staff here has worked diligently for 10 years now to meet the credit and financial needs of its members and the public, many of whom work in the cotton and melon fields of this area of southwest Arizona in an economy dependent on agriculture. The population of Somerton is 96% Hispanic. The average number of daily transactions at the Somerton branch, noted Bredemeyer, is 660, with the average share draft at $1,200 and loan balances of $3,100. That compares with $4,200 share draft balances and $7,000 in loans at AEA's main office in Yuma, 15 miles to the north. Aside from a second branch in Yuma, AEA with 40,000 members also maintains a branch in Parker, a community of 15,000 with a large Indian population. Bredemeyer acknowledges that the 53% Somerton unemployment statistic as reported by the government "is probably a little skewed since we have so many seasonal workers." Somerton's larger neighbor, San Luis-right on the border and with nearly 15,000-has 49% unemployment. Still, in spite of those numbers, the Somerton branch's delinquency ratio has been running at 1% with a charge-off rate of .63%. The main office in Yuma has a delinquency rate of .88% and a 0.9% charge-off rate. " As you can imagine, we are doing business at this branch in a crowded office in a culture where there is distrust for financial institutions," observed Brademeyer. "It's an education process we are involved in." Many of the loans at Somerton are the $500-$1,000 signature credits many of which go toward down payments on used car purchases. "I ask you how many banks would do those kind of loans?" said Brademeyer. Apart from loans, AEA's Somerton office obviously does a brisk business in check cashing and also international wire services. "We started last October with IRnet international services, and we're glad to be able help our farm workers who ordinarily would have to pay the much higher Western Union fees at a local supermarket," said Somerton's branch manager, Gloria Vanderzyl. Since starting IRnet, run by World Council of Credit Unions and Vigo International of New York, there have been 184 wires sent to Mexico and South American destinations. Though its budget is limited, AEA's Somerton branch does its part in community reach-out and charity. Vanderzyl is a board member of the Rotary, Somerton Boys and Girls Club and the Advisory Council of the Salvation Army. Branch employees sell candy and balloons at the yearly Somerton Greater Days Parade and sell hot dogs at the annual car sale. The AEA staff helps the Rotary at the Cocopah Halloween party and every Christmas funds are raised to adopt two families during Christmas providing them with gifts and food baskets. AEA also buys T-shirts for the local Little League players. Held up as one CU "model" in Arizona, AEA's overall operation and its commitment to the underserved were mentioned in June by CUNA's Pete Crear, chief operating officer, during a speech at the annual meeting of the Arizona Credit Union League. Crear told Credit Union Times that AEA is demonstrating how a CU can "reach out to the community of its membership" adding though not every CU "can get involved the way AEA is doing it." Nonetheless, said Crear, "AEA needed no prompting to get stared: the management and staff are just committed to making life easier for members in an area where that isn't easy to do." AEA's 10 year operation in Somerton is being marked Nov. 13 with an anniversary celebration complete with mariachis, an open house, a few speeches and "plenty of food," says Vanderzyl, who started with AEA in 1979 as a new accounts rep. in Yuma and was later asked to run the Somerton branch. AEA is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year starting with seven members and $35,000 in assets in 1942. Bredemeyer maintains AEA, a teacher-based CU, subscribes to the "people helping people" tenet, and in the case of Somerton, "we believe we have an ethical and philosophical responsibility to help our members to achieve financial independence and security." Moreover, in his view Somerton should set an example of why NCUA repealed the Community Action Plan, Bredemeyer concluded adding "credit unions don't need a law to make them serve the underserved." email@example.com
In Arizona town with 53% unemployed, CU does not give up
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