After struggling for years to manage her college debt, Milly DuBouchet could never have imagined that one day she would be able to channel her personal experience into a career as a Financial Counselor.
Today, DuBouchet is a veteran Financial Counselor at Neighborhood Trust Financial Partners, where she has worked for nine years. Based in New York City, the organization was founded in 1994 as Credit Where Credit is Due to address the lack of affordable, accessible financial services in Upper Manhattan. Without low-cost banking services in their communities, families were disconnected from critical financial tools to help them manage their money, stay out of debt and save for the future. Renamed in 2012, for more than a decade Neighborhood Trust has been working to connect underserved communities and families with the support and tools to eliminate debt and develop healthy financial profiles.
For Counselors like DuBouchet, building a relationship and facilitating an open dialogue are key to helping clients reach financial security—which is the core goal at Neighborhood Trust. “Clients are completely stressed,” said DuBouchet of her work at Neighborhood Trust. “I know what that’s like because I have been in that situation … It is important to be an open book and share my story.”
By sharing their stories, DuBouchet and other counselors establish something that is at the heart of Neighborhood Trust’s approach: trust. Neighborhood Trust counselors work with people who may have had few experiences, or poor experiences with financial institutions in the past, and they aim to build a relationship based on trust, where their clients feel empowered. Counselors strive to cultivate supportive work environments that enable clients to grow economically and to ensure that their clients have the necessary tools to make a realistic plan and progress toward economic security.
“I like that I can tell a client, this is exactly what needs to be done to get you where you need to be. You can do it yourself, or we can just do it together, so you can walk away and say ‘I feel supported in this process, and I don’t have to figure it out on my own,’” said DuBouchet.
Neighborhood Trust Counselors take a balance sheet approach; they develop personalized Financial Action Plans™, improve credit scores, reduce debt and connect clients with low- or no-cost financial services.
What makes Neighborhood Trust different, Aaron Charlop-Powers, the Director of External Relations said, is that staff rolls up their sleeves to work with community members and not just for them. Neighborhood Trust meets its clients—like Sheila Fonseca—where they live and where they work.
Fonesca recently finished college and was enthusiastically entering the workforce with a position at MyClean, a cleaning service, until she encountered unanticipated financial difficulty in paying off her college loans. Facing crippling debt and a damaged credit profile, Fonesca was able to get help at her job via Neighborhood Trust’s workplace-based initiative, The Employer Solution.
The Employer Solution improves the preexisting financial relationships between employers and their employees so that the employer becomes a trusted resource for reliable, actionable financial counseling. Neighborhood Trust’s Financial Counselors help workers set budgets to meet their short-term needs and long-term goals, provide guidance on available savings incentives, and empower workers with the knowledge and tools to plan, save and achieve economic security over time. Support for the program from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Charlop-Powers said, is a “game changer,” because it allows Neighborhood Trust to expand its innovative model.
Through The Employer Solution, Neighborhood Trust leverages these preexisting financial relationships by working with companies to provide workplace-based financial services for workers. According to Charlop-Powers, The Employer Solution is based on the idea that “we can efficiently and effectively serve substantial numbers of low-income workers if we serve them via their employer.”
Reaching and empowering people like Fonesca through their workplace is a model that Charlop-Powers believes could have a powerful ripple effect in the business community.
“We are testing a disruptive idea,” said Marcia Caban, Neighborhood Trust’s Chief Business Development Officer. It is an idea that could change the future workplace to ensure that lower-income workers know how to protect themselves from predatory financial practices and have the tools to manage their money and prepare for the future.
Before her first session, Fonesca nervously prepared herself to discuss her financial challenges with her new counselor. “I was worried it would be awkward,” she said. Once she sat down, however, Fonesca’s counselor focused the conversation on her personal life, trying to understand her story and the circumstances that she has faced, before they even began to discuss finances.
“I was surprised that they cared about my personal life,” she mused, reflecting on the session. From that point forward, Fonesca and her counselor formed a trusting relationship and she felt confident in her financial future, so confident that she even brought in her now husband, Edgar, to work with her financial counselor. ”He doesn’t trust anybody,” Fonesca laughed, but she knew how much Edgar, who had accumulated credit card debt, stood to gain from working with Neighborhood Trust.
Thinking back through her experience with Neighborhood Trust and The Employer Solution, Fonesca said that her proudest moment has been receiving her first credit score after working with her financial counselor, Chris Starr. Reminiscing, Fonesca remembers the feeling of an improved higher score and a drastic reduction in her debt. “It worked,” she said proudly and simply.