Program gives entrepreneurs, home buyers a hand

May 11, 2010
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As Chicago and the rest of the country continue to struggle in a down economy, 2010 may not seem like a year of opportunity. But for some West Side residents unfazed by foreclosure signs and shuttered storefronts, now is the perfect time to plan for the future.

They are part of Smart Savers, a financial literacy program that teaches burgeoning entrepreneurs how to pinch their pennies and stretch their dollars to realize their dreams. Nearly 200 people have completed the program in the last three years.

“The goal of the program is to help people to create assets that will lead them toward financial independence,” said Pierre Dunagan, a former financial adviser who heads the community savings program at Bethel New Life, a nonprofit Christian community organization in West Garfield Park.

Smart Savers is a project of the Community Savings Center, a collaboration between Bethel New Life; Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, a Minneapolis-based financial services organization; and US Bank, formerly Park National.

The program is geared toward low-income people; participants must earn less than $21,660 for a single person or about $45,000 for a family of four. They must be at least 18 years old, have a job and – for some, the trickiest part – commit to saving $2,000 to start or expand a business, buy a home or go back to school.

It’s not easy, said Austin Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Camille Lilly – especially for someone who has never saved before. But the perks are real: For every dollar participants save in a six-month period, participants get another $2 toward their goal, up to $2,000 – a two-to-one match.

Effectively tripling their money is a real draw for the hundreds of Chicagoans – mostly West Side residents – who have completed the program in the past three years. But there are side benefits as well.

“(For) a lot of the families and individuals who are really struggling, this program gives them a sense of hope, a sense of purpose,” Lilly said. “It’s a stepping stone to seeing yourself reach goals.”

During the eight-week course, participants attend financial literacy classes at the Community Savings Center, located at 310 N. Pulaski Road. The class starts with a close look at member’s expenses; on their first day, participants are asked to create a list of everything they spend in a month. The findings are often eye-opening.

“They’re shocked,” Dunagan said. “We had one person who was spending a couple hundred dollars a month on Starbucks. They didn’t even realize it, because it’s $5 here and $5 there.”

Over the next two months, participants create a series of short-term, mid-term and long-term goals, and learn skills they need to budget and save. Lessons are delivered with a strong Christian message.

“The class is really coming from a point of stewardship,” Dunagan said. “If God is giving you resources to be a good steward over, how good of a steward are you being over those resources? … What are your values around money?”

Diangelo Smith, 23, graduated from Smart Savers three years ago. He used his grant money to buy the licenses and equipment he needed to open a funeral home, C. Destiny & Son Funeral Services, in Austin.

“(Smart Savers) was a great experience,” Smith said. “It taught me business management as well as saving … and my business has multiplied in the last year.”

Smart Savers is affiliated with Assets for Independence, a program of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that gives grants to community organizations to help low-income families get out of poverty and revitalize their neighborhoods.

That revitalization is vital for Austin, said Elce Redmond, an organizer with the South Austin Coalition who worries about the number of businesses shutting their doors in the community.

While learning to achieve goals and spend wisely is a good start, Redmond said, entrepreneurs will continue to need funding to get off the ground.

“Financial literacy is always important, but a lot of times people know how to run a business,” Redmond said. “What they need is capital.”

If you’re interested in joining the next class, which starts May 25, applications may be filled out at the Community Savings Center, 310 N. Pulaski Road, and information sessions are held each Tuesday evening at 5 p.m.

For more information, click here or call 773-826-8121.

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