Catholic Charities’ Family Success Center focuses on five areas of financial help.
Catholic Charities’ Family Success Center focuses on five areas of financial help.

Catholic Charities offices across the nation are looking to Oregon because of an expanding financial self-sufficiency program. The University of Notre Dame even wanted to do a study on the unique project.

For Molly O’Donnell, director of the Family Success Center at Catholic Charities Oregon, it was all kind of obvious.

“We want to empower people to get their lives back,” O’Donnell says. “We want them to make the change and sustain it in the long term. That is our secret sauce.”

The program aids the working poor, who often fall through social services gaps, by teaching them to save, purchase wisely and achieve their financial goals.

Now the Family Success Center has started an enterprise that not only helps people attain financial independence, but might do the same for the program.

Using expertise in financial education and coaching gained over the past nine years, O’Donnell and her team of money management coaches are administering employee aid programs for Providence Health and Services and the Vancouver Clinic. Catholic Charities is looking to take on work from more businesses, which pay the organization to help low-income workers stay housed, pay utility bills, escape domestic abuse, manage bank accounts and save for their goals. The fees will allow Catholic Charities to help more people, including those who walk in off the streets or who are sent by parishes for aid and financial education.

The new venture, called Save First Financial Wellness, will be open for more businesses this fall.  

“It’s a good way to build up the wellness of an employee base, which builds up families and communities,” says O’Donnell. “It’s good for families in the long run.”

Those who come to Catholic Charities for help — through a worker program or otherwise — go through a deep assessment of both finances and other life situations. The investigations often turn up problems that need fixing, including identity theft, paycheck garnishment, domestic violence and immigration status.

Catholic Charities leaders say that everyone they serve at some point needs financial wellness education. The Family Success Center offers all its clients a class on financial literacy, including budgeting, cash flow, debt reduction and credit repair.

To make sure the newly learned financial practices are sustained, the center offers three to six months of one-on-one financial coaching.

The program also helps families bend their trajectory toward future self-sufficiency through matched savings programs for homeownership, going to school or starting a business. Clients save and are matched through the Oregon Individual Development Account Initiative in which federal, state and local agencies match dollars that clients put into savings for a specific asset such as a home, education or business. 

“The idea is to help and change one person, one family at a time,” O’Donnell says.

Catholic Charities reaches into the community for volunteers who have the heart of a teacher to work with their clients. The agency screens and trains volunteers before they can become coaches. Those who step forward to help include volunteers with a financial background as well as single mothers who have learned in trial by fire. There are now 58 coaches serving 88 clients.

“It’s neat to see people solve problems and get ahead in life,” says Les Fahey, a retired certified public accountant who serves as a coach. 

Fahey, a member of St. Juan Diego Parish in Northwest Portland, has coached for three years, meeting monthly with a couple of clients. “I thought why not use my expertise to give people a helping hand?” 

Many clients have student loans and perhaps credit card debt to retire. Fahey helps them set a budget, answers questions and encourages them to follow the game plan. Sometimes he gives golden advice. For one client, he suggested refinancing the house to get the interest rate down from 8 to 4 percent. That gave the woman more than $300 per month in savings.

“It’s about providing hope, letting someone know, ‘I can do this,’” O’Donnell says.

The Family Success Center serves about 500 clients per year. Around 1 in 5 is homeless at the start and an even higher number is facing some form of housing insecurity like eviction or something close to it.

The process takes time, but works in many cases. One woman came to Catholic Charities for help several years ago. She had a job at a hospital and was living in a car with her children. She would wake up in the driver’s seat, take the kids to school and drive to work. She’d buy food at the hospital cafeteria to feed her family. A victim of domestic violence, she had been evicted from her apartment.

Catholic Charities helped her find temporary housing. Counselors worked with her and her children to overcome the trauma they had suffered at home and on the streets. A financial coach guided her to save enough money to rent an apartment. The woman has been promoted at the hospital and is saving cash for a house in a matched savings account.

“This isn’t an overnight change; it’s a marathon, not a sprint,” O’Donnell says. “It’s bringing a lot of resources to the table and providing that accompaniment while someone works to meet their goals.”