Credit union joins Money Matters effort for foster youth

Solano County is about to make history for a good cause. In what may be the first program of its kind in the country, Solano County's foster youth will gain the tools needed for financial responsibility.

A partnership of Solano County Health and Social Services, Travis Credit Union, CASA of Solano County, United Way of the Bay Area, First Place for Youth and Alternative Family Services will soon launch the Money Matters program, providing financial literacy education, custodial bank accounts and personal financial mentors for foster youth ages 15 to 17.

This project is just one facet of Solano County's California Connected by 25 Initiative, an effort in eight California counties funded by the Walter S. Johnson Foundation, to help public child welfare agencies and their communities build a comprehensive system of support and services for youth leaving the foster care system. The goal: connect foster youth by age 25 to opportunities, experiences and support that will help them to succeed as independent adults.

"It first came to my attention that foster youth needed assistance with financial issues when I took a young lady to speak at a foster parent training event and she asked the organizer to make her speaker's payment check out to me so that she wouldn't have to give a portion of it to a check cashing agency," said Maria Moses, former executive director of Solano County CASA and co-chair of the financial literacy committee.

"When I asked other foster youth about their check cashing experiences, it saddened me that most of them had adverse experiences with cashing checks made out to them and had no bank of their own. I decided that we could do better as a community and system and the Solano Connected by 25 Initiative gave us the vehicle to do so."

Vacaville-based Travis Credit Union, which has a Davis branch, sought to be involved in the initiative soon after the company became aware of it.

"We found that we could help the program partners work more collaboratively and implement a program faster," said Patsy Van Ouwerkerk, Travis Credit Union president and CEO. "We share their belief that if we can better transition foster youth, our communities will be healthier."

"We also believe this initiative is a perfect fit with Travis Credit Union's ongoing commitment to financial education and our strategic priority to build active and supportive community partnerships."

Moses said a committee, including Travis Credit Union, Child Welfare Services, United Way and foster youth, has "come up with a solution to a problem that most foster youth in our community face."

"Money Matters will help 50 Solano County foster youth to become more financially stable through training and the ability to open a personal savings account with oversight right here in the county," Moses said. "The added benefit of a financial mentor provided by Travis Credit Union will assure that these youth transition out of foster care into adulthood with assistance, instead of having to learn through very costly mistakes. They will be better prepared to handle their financial matters in a more informed and adult manner."

The Youth Action Team, a group of youth who are either in foster care or recently emancipated from foster care, worked with the county and Travis Credit Union to provide advice and a name for the Money Matters program.

Emancipated youth Karina Blackmon sees a brighter future for her and other foster youth as a result of the program.

"Now that Travis Credit Union is helping us make smart money decisions, I feel that we will be better prepared for the transition into the real world," Blackmon said.

With alarming statistics such as a 55 percent high school dropout rate among foster youths and 25 percent homeless rate of former foster youth nationally, Solano County Connected by 25 brings the community together to address this crisis through education, employment, housing, financial literacy and other strategies.

"After the initial pilot, we look forward to partnering with Travis Credit Union to provide ongoing financial literacy education to our youth," said Jay Berlin, executive director of Alternative Family Services. "The need for a program like Money Matters is paramount."

How it works

The foster youths will attend a five-session, 15-hour financial education class. To promote attendance, youths will have the chance at the final session to win another tool to track their finances -- a laptop computer. After completion of the final class, they will open a Travis Credit Union custodial savings account, with a modest starting balance.

"Foster youth don't have a parent to open a savings account for them," said Solano County Child Welfare Director Linda Orrante. "By opening the account in the youth's own name, it's a hands-on way for them to experience banking. We appreciate the work Travis Credit Union is doing to help these teens make the transition to young adulthood."

The accounts will have ATM withdrawal access (no VISA, checks or debit card) with a $100 withdrawal limit per day. Youths can deposit their paychecks via direct deposit, ATM or at a branch.

Six months prior to court emancipation or prior to the minor turning 18, the county representative will notify him or her that the account must be changed to an adult account. Travis Credit Union will then offer the youth an optional financial mentor and help him or her open a regular Travis Credit Union membership account when they become a legal adult, if desired.

Additionally, Travis Credit Union has worked collaboratively with the Solano County Office of Education to provide a special certificate that will be endorsed by the county superintendent of schools and the districts. The Solano County Office of Education will point out the standards to highlight the students' achievements.

"It's a need that no one addressed in this amount of detail before," said Van Ouwerkerk, who sees Travis Credit Union's participation as a model for other credit unions across the country.

The program kicked off on Saturday, Feb. 20, at the County Government Center in Fairfield, and concluded March 20. Immediately following the last class, participants traveled to Travis Credit Union's Gateway branch for a tour prior to opening their individual accounts.

© 2010 The Davis Enterprise. Reproduced with permission.  
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