SAN DIEGO – Walk into the City Heights-Hoover High branch of Mission Federal Credit Union and the first thing that strikes you is the youthful appearance of the people working there. That's because the employees at the branch are high school juniors and seniors. It is, according to Leeann Hardman of Mission FCU, the only credit union branch in the U.S. run by students that is open to the community. It is also believed to be one of the first student-run credit unions in Southern California, she said. The branch is a partnership between Mission Federal and Hoover High School. The program, in the planning stages for six years, won the approval of by the San Diego Unified School District in September 2001. As an approved "regional occupation program" or "ROP" class, students receive both high school and college credits for their participation. They also receive unpaid or paid internship credits, depending on whether they are working during the school year or during vacation periods. Hardman, a longtime employee with Mission Federal, developed the curriculum and course outline for the program. She is the branch manager for the City Heights-Hoover High location and is a certified ROP instructor for the program. "I did a lot of research," she said. "I contacted other credit unions across the country that had these programs to find out what they had done, how their program were set up, and if they had failed, why, so that I could better the wheel. "The wheel had already been invented," she noted, saying that her objective was "let's just make it better. That's what we did." Hardman said her research showed that while other student programs focused solely on working in a branch, "nobody had really developed a career opportunity for the students." "Mission Federal wanted to give the students a career opportunity," she said. "It wanted to give them the chance to get a well-paying job to help them work their way through college and to better themselves." Doing nothing, she said, would have left many students at risk. ". . . If you can't get them into a type of program that gives them a lot of opportunities and shows them what they're capable of doing out there, they're going to end up being the dropouts and they're going to end up being the statistics because nobody has taken the time to show them that there really is something that they can do and there is really something that they can continue on," she said. Juliana Vrgara, a 16-year-old junior at Hoover High, said working at the credit union has helped her focus on the future. "This is really what got me thinking about what I wanted to do," said Vrgara, who hopes to major in business administration at San Diego State University. "It really helped me focus." Hoover High School students who wanted to participate in the program had to submit an employment application, letters of recommendation and undergo a formal job interview, just as they would for any job, Hardman said. Seventeen students-14 seniors and three juniors-were selected. They began training July 22, undergoing the same classroom instruction provided to all new Mission Federal hires. They then underwent three weeks of what Hardman describes as "intensive classroom training with me eight hours a day." After that, they spent another two to four weeks "job shadowing" a Mission Federal employee at work. The students eventually began taking over the employee's responsibilities. On April 7, the City Heights-Hoover High branch opened, becoming the 22nd Mission Federal branch. A grand opening celebration was held May 14. The branch is about a block and a half away from the school. "We're very pleased that the student-branch is finally open," said Ron Martin, president and chief executive officer of Mission Federal. "We've been planning its opening for years now, and it's truly rewarding to see it finally happening." Hardman noted that other than the ages of the workers, members would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between one branch and another. "The only difference is your tellers behind teller line or the person opening your account may be a student," she said. "They do all of the normal functions at the teller line. We have three students who are proficient in opening new accounts. For any member who walks in, there's no difference between this branch and any other branch." Students can also pull credit reports, check balances and maintain the ATM. The only thing they weren't trained to handle was loans, but Hardman said that would be included in next year's program. A maximum of four students work at the branch at any one time, spending a 90-minute class period there (the school is on a block schedule with the school day split into four 90-minute class periods; the students rotate into the branch throughout the school day depending on their schedules). Three supervisors from Mission Federal oversee the students at all times. The students at the credit union mirror the ethnic diversity of the City Heights area; there are Ethiopians, Somalians, Hispanics, African-Americans, Vietnamese and Laotians. "The City Heights community is one of the most densely populated areas of San Diego County and also one of the most culturally diverse, with more than 75 different languages and more than 200 different dialects," Hardman said. To reach that population, Hardman and her students offer free financial education classes three nights every month. The students translate Hardman's information for small groups of adults sitting at tables. "It makes it a very nice warm welcoming environment for everybody to learn," she said. "It's making a big impact on the community." In the first month of the program, the branch opened 35 new accounts, she reported. Financial education classes are also taught to all the seniors in the high school. Vrgara admitted she had never heard of a credit union before she entered the program. Now, she said, some of her friends are interested in participating in the program. This June, the 14 seniors in the program will graduate from Hoover High, all of whom will be going on to college. All of them have contacted credit unions near where they will be attending school to inquire about part-time employment, Hardman noted. Vrgara and the two other remaining students plan to continue in the program next year. Hardman said she her job is more than just being a boss to the students. "The job is not just being a branch manager and a supervisor, but you're also their trainer and instructor," she said. "You're also their mentor." "She doesn't just train us as far as a class, but gives us guidance in life and other things," Vrgara said. She's like a mentor and advisor. She's actually like a mom. She helps us out a lot." Hardman recalled a few students who were accepted to the "college of their dreams" but who then started wavering and getting cold feet about whether to attend. "That's where the mentor has to step in," Hardman said. "You have to tell them, `No, this is what you've dreamed of, this is what you want to do. Think about it further and go.' "You encourage them to go to college," she added. "Especially during spring break, we had to push them to go to (college) orientations. Once they went to orientations and got their feet on campus, they came back and said, `We're going.' "With the right mentoring, you're able to make a difference," she said. "It has been an extremely rewarding yet challenging year. It is extremely rewarding to know that Mission Federal has created a program that can really make an influence on these children's lives." -

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