"Even as things in this economy are difficult, and we know credit union's are struggling, I think we also need to acknowledge that 1,100 people showed up tonight to celebrate credit unions and the work they do on behalf of their 92 million members across the country," said Robert Schumacher, CEO of the $86 million MountainCrest Credit Union headquartered in Everett, Wash.
Schumacher chairs the National Credit Union Foundation's awards and recognition committee and served as master of ceremonies for the event.
Schumacher pointed out that it is often during difficult economic times that credit unions shine their brightest for their members and that additional light only serves to make the contributions of the people and organizations who win the Wegner awards even brighter.
Montana Credit Unions for Community Development led the evening's accolades. Even though the organization, which is the philanthropic arm of the Montana Credit Union Network, is only five years old, it has helped Montanans find alternatives to payday lending, get money they were owed from the government and open savings accounts to help them with educational expenses, homeownership or to start a small business.
Among MCUCD's accomplishments in the last five years has been growing the network of credit unions offering volunteer income tax assistance from 2 to 13 and the numbers of tax returns filed from 94 in the first year to over 3,000 last year.
"In fact, this is something of a coup that we are here at all," said Network President Tracie Kenyon, referring to the tax season. "This is a really busy time of year for us back home, but I guess I don't have the pull to change the dates of the GAC," she said, which the Wegner dinner is held in conjunction with.
Some of the people most surprised and pleased by the presentation of the video on the MCUCD that was part of the awards ceremony were the MCUCD staffers themselves.
MCUCD Executive Director Jeanne Saarinen made the point that the organization worked hard to remain behind the scenes and allow member credit unions to be its primary face with their own members. Because of this, most MCUCD staff have never even met or heard the stories of some of the people they have most helped until they appeared in the video.
"It is heartwarming and extremely moving to really see and hear the impact our work has" she told the awards audience.
Tom Sargent, CEO of $1.9 billion First Tech Credit Union, and Rita Haynes, CEO of $11 million Faith Community United, shared the Wegner Individual Achievement award, a relatively rare circumstance.
The award recognized Sargent for his pioneering work with the Credit Unions for Kids effort to help bolster the Children's Miracle Network. In thanking the National Foundation for the awards, Sargent told the story of how his granddaughter had needed the services of the very same parts of a children's hospital that he had helped fund.
"In walking to her room on the seventh floor," Sargent said, "I had to walk right past the plaque we just saw on the video that thanked Credit Unions for Kids for their funding the floor. Nothing brings home the impact of how important our work for kids is than having our granddaughter need it. Thank you so much for the gift you have given me and my family."
Haynes, the CEO of Faith Community, brought chuckles and scattered applause from the audience as she recounted how she and the members of her church had founded Faith Community as a response to the need to counter payday lenders and pawn shops that had come to infest the neighborhood.
"In so many ways, this credit union has been a gift from God," said one Faith Community credit union member. "I really can't thank them enough for allowing us to live like regular people."
Finally Bill Sterner, the late CEO of the $859 million Elevations Credit Union headquartered in Boulder, Colo., was recognized posthumously for the lifetime achievement award. Sterner's widow, Pat Brownell-Sterner, and 50 members of his extended family attended the ceremony to receive it on his behalf.
Sterner's interest in credit unions began during the 1960s when he worked with the Peace Corps to help South American villagers set up financial cooperatives. During his 46-year career, Sterner held management positions with CUNA, the California and Kansas credit union leagues, and the World Council of Credit Unions.