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WASHINGTON – This year’s Herb Wegner Award Winners will include two pioneers among credit union efforts to seek out and serve the most underserved and often forgotten people in their communities. Caryl Stewart, CEO of the $37 million Opportunities Credit Union (until recently the Vermont Development Credit Union), headquartered in Burlington, Vermont, will accept the award for Outstanding Organization on behalf of Opportunities, and Cliff Rosenthal, Executive Director of the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions will accept the award for Individual Achievement. The National Credit Union Foundation established the Herb Wegner Awards in 1988 to honor the late CUNA CEO, Herb Wegner, and to recognize his spirit of “innovative, creative, risk-taking” leadership, the Foundation has said. “Each year it’s an honor to recognize the best of the global credit union movement, and this year is no exception,” said Chuck Purvis, NCUF board chairman and SVP at Coastal Federal Credit Union in North Carolina. “The contributions these award recipients have made to our movement are extraordinary, the dedication awe-inspiring.” In addition to Opportunities and Rosenthal, the Wegner awards this year will recognize Dr. James Likens, president and dean of Western CUNA Management School (WCMS), who will receive the Lifetime Achievement award in recognition of his many achievements throughout his lengthy career, including running the management school, speaking tirelessly on behalf of credit unions and having had an impact on the careers of thousands of credit union leaders, the Foundation said. For Stewart, the award to Opportunities represents the culmination of three different strands in her life, the caring for people, the preference for the private sector as an instrument to help meet people’s needs, and a commitment to seek excellence in performance and attitude. “It’s funny, but I believe that everything I have done in my life has led me to this place and to this work,” Stewart said. “If I look at what I do today I can see where each of the different things I have done in my life help me do what I do now.” Stewart began her career knowing nothing about credit unions or even financial institutions. “I was a social worker,” she said, chuckling a little. It was a career she entered, and enjoyed, because of her desire to help people face problems in their lives and accomplish goals. But it was also a career that left her frustrated with the bureaucracy she encountered working in the public sector. So in 1973 Stewart left social work and entered the private sector, joining a partner in developing a business plan, raising capital and founding Bennington Potters North in 1974. The successful retail store still occupies its original space, though Stewart left it in the late 1980s as she became more intrigued with community development and the possibility of using a credit union to accomplish community development ends. “Through my work in the private sector I had become aware of my ability to understand financial issues and to work with people on finances,” Stewart said. “I had also gotten involved in working with this ecumenical group in the area that had begun dabbling in some community development issues.” That group, the Burlington Ecumenical Action Ministry, became the founding sponsor, in 1989, of the Vermont Development Credit Union. The founding of the credit union appeared to be on track as a relatively easily attainable goal, Stewart recounts, until the savings and loan crisis hit and suddenly NCUA and the share insurance fund took a very dim view of anything like community development credit unions. “I think there was a three-year period where there was no new community development credit union chartered at all, anywhere in the country” Stewart said. “That we opened at all is really a triumph of persistence. Whenever we would overcome whatever hurdle they had for us to overcome they had another one waiting.” But Stewart and the organizers persisted and opened the credit union in 1989, with what she now considers a dangerously small amount of operating capital, $20,000, but with a reservoir of good will from Burlington political leaders. With the help of then Burlington mayor and now independent Congressman Bernie Sanders, VDCU was able to not only keep its doors open but to attract institutional investment from Burlington area banks who were looking for a way to invest in Burlington’s community development effort. Under Stewart’s leadership, Opportunities has attained a reputation for being a credit union that “never says no,” a stance that Stewart says initially earns her applause at speaking engagements until what that really means sinks in with people. “We have three types of loan applicants at Opportunities,” Stewart says, “qualified, near term qualified and long term qualified.” Being in the near term or long term qualified group usually means that the applicant has to commit to doing the hard work necessary to make themselves qualified and not everyone is ready to make that commitment.” Many of the members do however and Stewart reported that one her greatest satisfactions in running Opportunities came in a study conducted by the Pew Partnership for Civic Change that documented, in hard terms, the impact the credit union has had on the communities it has served. “We always knew we were having an effect from what our members told us and showed us,” Stewart said. “The study merely documented that more completely.” A Movement Deepened Rosenthal said that his Wegner award represented recognition of the changes community development credit unions have helped encourage among credit unions overall. “For many of my 25 years at the Federation, CDCUs have been described as the conscience of the credit union movement,” Rosenthal said. “This has been problematic since I believe everyone has their own consciences but it’s true that CDCUs have made working with low-income people specifically the hallmark of their work.” Rosenthal said that the biggest indication of the impact CDCUs have had on the broader credit union movement may be the fact that, 10 years from now, it appears very likely that many other credit unions will do the sorts of work long associated with CDCUs. “This really is the CDCUs’ legacy,” Rosenthal said. “This is why we have set up programs to encourage mainstream credit unions to partner with CDCUs, that’s why we have sought to provide benchmarks for good practices in working with low-income people. Gradually, working with low-income people will be something all credit unions specifically work into their business plans and it will become less something that only CDCUs do,” he concluded. [email protected]

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