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BELLINGHAM, Wash. – More than 450 residents of Whatcom County, in the Northwestern reaches of Washington state near the Canadian border, have spent most of their working years at the Georgia-Pacific Corporation pulp plant in Bellingham. On March 30, however, their world came crashing down. They were laid off with the plant’s closure, with a majority of them credit union members. “The pulp side of Georgia-Pacific has closed,” explained Industrial CU of Whatcom County (ICU) Director of Marketing Jill Radel. “And the tissue plant remains open for the time being. The rising cost of energy has made staying in business difficult.” Other larger manufacturing businesses in Whatcom County might suffer the same fate. With a financial crisis looming, four of the town’s CUs – Industrial CU of Whatcom County, GaPac Employees’ FCU, North Coast CU and Whatcom Educational CU – decided cooperative action was essential to help their members – and any others laid off: “Whatcom County has supported the credit union movement for 65 years, and we thought now it’s time to support them (the laid-off workers) during this time of stress,” explained Terri McKee, president/CEO of Industrial CU of Whatcom County. “We knew it was time to give back to the community.” Katie Jordan, president/CEO of GaPac Employees’ FCU, joined with McKee to mull over ideas to help their members, most of whom work for the paper manufacturer. “This closure had directly affected Industrial and GaPac credit unions because of our original fields of membership,” said Jordan. “At one time, GaPac was for the (Georgia Pacific) tissue plant, and Industrial was for the pulp plant. Georgia-Pacific is still our only employer group, but Industrial now has a community charter.” Industrial CU was only granted its community charter in 1999. Despite differing charters and a common field-of-membership, McKee and Jordan put competition aside for community. They attended a Washington State Employment Securities Department meeting for ideas to provide assistance to members. “From the meeting, we determined we had to find exactly what our members needed during this time,” said McKee. “We put together a member survey asking people how we could help.” Financial planning and budgeting ranked top on the list. “The average person who is leaving (the pulp mill),” said Jordan, “has about 15 to 35 years (with Georgia-Pacific) because it was a high-paying employer who offered a lot of benefits. Many had never done a resume, and they haven’t had to interview for a job for many years. They needed some help learning how to do these things.” All the CUs would be affected, but GaPac Employees’ FCU, in particular, with 4,000 members and $31 million in assets, could experience acute problems since they have retained a single field of membership. “Georgia-Pacific remained our only employee group,” said Jordan of their CU chartered in 1952. Currently, however, she said the board is exploring options on what impact attaining select employee groups (SEGs) would have on their CU. Spearheaded by Jordan, McKee and Radel, the four Bellingham CUs formed a financial rescue team to organize two seminars for members on how to survive a layoff. McKee contacted Boeing Employees’ CU (BECU) President/CEO Gary Oakland about similar successful training programs they’ve offered to laid-off employees in the past. Without hesitation, Oakland sent Tina Hall, financial counseling educator from BECU Financial Services, to help with the project. “We have in place a very proven and successful program for members when they run into a situation that causes an interruption of income,” said Oakland, who also serves as the Washington League board chairman. “When we got a call to see if we could help, we wanted to do everything we could to give assistance to those credit unions.” He then added, “Isn’t that what we’re all about?” The Bellingham CUs then created Operation C.U.R.E. (Credit Union Resources and Education) to respond not only to the Georgia-Pacific layoffs, but to the rising threat of future layoffs in other industries. Subjects to be covered were “How to Survive a Layoff” and “Better Budgeting.” With a skilled trainer in place, two free seminars were scheduled May 16 and 17 in an ICU branch for members and other interested laid-off workers. BECU’s Hall said most of the 80 participants over the two-day period wanted to know what they could do to pay bills. “For the most part, people were looking for what their next step would be,” she said. “They were empowered because there were things they could do that night, that week and that month.” Vendors trying to sell their services tried to get into the act. “In the Sunday paper following the layoffs, there were a lot of ads for financial planners, but there was nothing available to deal with the grief,” said McKee. “They were coming out of the woodwork, and circling like vultures. Also, we had some financial planning companies that wanted to partner with us to help with the program, but it became obvious they were just looking for an `in’ to sell their services.” McKee turned down all the offers. She and Jordan decided it was important for the seminars to have “a healthy credit union environment where no one was trying to sell anything.” Did Operation C.U.R.E. meet the CUs’ objectives? “Many of the people went away feeling better about themselves,” responded Radel. “And Tina Hall’s upbeat presence inspired everyone. “We had one member who came up to us afterwards and said the sessions gave him the courage he needed to make some serious changes in his life for the better,” Radel added. “He said that he now felt he knew what he needed to do to move ahead and that surviving the layoff was truly possible.” -

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