EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Often credit unions go looking for underserved people in their fields of membership to serve. But sometimes the underserved come looking for help and it's up to the credit union to respond.
That is what happened at the $168 million Option 1 Credit Union (then Financial Health Credit Union) when a member affiliated with the Michigan Disability Rights Coalition approached the CU about help in administering some funds that the MDRC had been granted to offer assistive technology loans to people with disabilities.
The credit union accepted the challenge and began to administer the Michigan Assistive Technology Loan Fund, through a partnership with the MDRC and United Cerebral Palsy of Michigan. Over the last three years, the fund has made $1.4 million in loans to 239 individuals across the state so that they could buy the sorts of technological improvements to their homes or other tools needed to overcome their disabilities.
The credit union also began to get a much fuller understanding of how many people with disabilities live in Michigan and how little access they had to either financial education or services.
"I think one of the first challenges I had was to educate myself on just how many people have disabilities and what sorts of disabilities there are," explained Adeline Metzler, executive vice president for special projects for the credit union. "When I heard the word disability, I used to think of a person in a wheelchair," Metzler explained, "but there are so many more kinds of disability than just that and so many more needs."
As she educated herself about their needs, Metzler said she and the credit union began to understand that many people with disabilities were hampered in their lives by a lack of financial education and knowledge and the CU applied for, and received, help from the National Credit Union Foundation to set up an education program. The CU decided that the most efficient approach to the training program would be to use a variation on the Building Your Financial Future program to train trainers who could, in turn, train people with disabilities around the state. The Building Your Financial Future program had been developed by the FDIC and modified for credit unions by NAFCU. The CU added a module to the program addressing hosting accessible meetings, disability etiquette and training adults. The training program met with great success, eventually training enough trainers to teach almost 1,000 people with disabilities in 2005 about how they could access financial services through credit unions and how they can start taking control of their financial future.
One of the most successful parts of the training was the so called "reality store", a budgetary exercise where participants were given the sort of job they would like to have someday, a salary in program money to match that job, and then visits to a series of stores where they had to pay for things like utilities, food, shelter, entertainment etc.
"The goal was to help participants both prepare for life in the broader world and overcome their fear of it," Metzler said.
The educational effort also led to a successful DVD, which Metzler said was widely seen across the state particularly on public access television where it was welcomed both for its content and for its production values. But Metzler also noted that she hoped the CU might have an opportunity to do a second DVD since she was not aware of the DVD's pitfalls and possibilities when they made the first one.
For example, the DVD was rejected by Michigan's public television affiliates because, on viewing it, too many were concerned that it mentioned credit unions too heavily and could be viewed as an advertisement. If she did it again, Metzler said she would be more careful about how the video presented its information to a larger audience. But even without the public television viewing, Metzler said 500 were given out around the state as the credit union translated the train the trainer program into Spanish and targeted young people.
Currently the credit union is evaluating the program and deciding where it should go from here. Option 1 continues to administer the Disability Loan Program and will continue to do so although the Michigan Disability Rights Coalition will continue to apply for, and accepts, the grant money that funds the loans.
"What we have aimed to do with this program has been to bring financial knowledge and services to a group of people who are just not counted anywhere," Metzler said. "People with disabilities are the most underserved of all and we believe it is important credit unions be aware that they are out there, in their fields of membership, and need their help." --firstname.lastname@example.org