As a financial counselor for Save First, Olga Johnson helps clients learn how to control their budgets and reach financial security. (Courtesy Olga Johnson)
As a financial counselor for Save First, Olga Johnson helps clients learn how to control their budgets and reach financial security. (Courtesy Olga Johnson)
When wildfires scorched Oregon in the summer of 2020, thousands of families were forced out of their homes, some of them employees of the Oregon Clinic. The physician-owned medical group did what it could to support its workers with food and shelter, but the partnership realized it needed a permanent plan to aid staff whenever they faced other unexpected crises or faced financial difficulties. It was also critically important that employees be allowed to ask for help confidentially. So, after analyzing options offered by national providers, they found their solution: Save First Financial Wellness, a program of Catholic Charities of Oregon.

“It was the financial counseling piece that really put them over the top,” says Tom Sanchez, CEO of the Oregon Clinic. “I was just blown away, honestly, by their level of sophistication… and they actually used volunteers within the community to help with some of that financial counseling.” Employees can apply for financial assistance, but the online training and face-to-face counseling helps them establish healthy spending habits.

The program helped Vlada Golosov, a medical assistant at the clinic, when she recently found herself unable to make her mortgage payment. She and her husband Val had just moved his mother into assisted living and they unexpectedly had to pay for veterinary care and medicine for their two large dogs. A few surprise expenses can send a family into a spiral of debt. Golosov was scrolling through the company website when the employee benefit caught her eye. A link connected her to Save First directly, without her employer’s knowledge. (Golosov agreed to the use of her name in this article as an encouragement for fellow workers.)

As a Save First counselor, Olga Johnson helps people burdened with bills, ill-advised investments and unexpected expenses. Some become victims of aggressive lenders who impose unfair, deceptive or abusive loan terms on them. “Predatory lending and predator services target more vulnerable communities,” says Johnson. Sometimes a high-interest payday loan is the only option available.

Golosov qualified for emergency assistance and Save First sent a payment directly to Golosov’s mortgage company. But some employees are too ashamed or even afraid to seek assistance. “It’s hard to do it alone,” says Johnson “and even harder to reach out for help… There’s a lot of guilt.” That’s why the program maintains a wall of anonymity between the employee, employer and anyone else.

Save First administers the assets for the employer and returns only generalized data to the company. For instance, Sanchez says nearly 50 employees have applied for funds or support since the program started in October, but he knows no names.

It helps that Johnson and Golosov both speak Russian. Johnson is proud of her client’s efforts. “She is a really good success story because she is so committed … and she's really ready to prioritize it over anything else.”

Being realistic seems to come naturally to Golosov. “Obviously you never want to get into a scenario where you ask for help, but if you have to you still need to be in charge of your life, lifestyle and finances.”

She says Save First counselors are nonjudgmental and the process is easy. She has begun tracking her expenses on a daily basis. “It doesn't happen overnight… You can start changes and you can get a new picture, but to get really into the details, I think you need at least a couple months.”

Sanchez says the Oregon Clinic provides the bulk of the funding. But when he asked the 270 physicians and 1,000 employees if they wanted to make donations to the fund, the response was humbling. “There was an immense outpouring of support,” he said. “It’s been awesome to see that.”

— Bob Kerns