Neal McKeever, a financial coach in the Catholic Charities program Save First Financial Wellness, helps a client learn the ways of balancing a budget. (Courtesy Catholic Charities)
Neal McKeever, a financial coach in the Catholic Charities program Save First Financial Wellness, helps a client learn the ways of balancing a budget. (Courtesy Catholic Charities)

The woman could no longer bear it. She fled the abusive man, took her three children and began living on the streets of Portland in a van. 

A survivor who knows that everyone needs help sometimes, she called on Catholic Charities of Oregon. Caseworkers helped her find temporary housing, a domestic violence support group and counseling.

The crisis had calmed and she was ready to restart her life on more solid footing. Like almost everyone who walks through the doors at Catholic Charities, the woman was in need not just of money but of the skills it takes to be financially successful.

Enter Save First Financial Wellness, a Catholic Charities program that coaches people in saving, budgeting and spending wisely. After a few years of work with case managers and a volunteer mentor, the woman has been promoted at work and found housing close to the school her children attend. She’s saving for a house through the Save First matching funds plan and hopes to have a down payment in the years ahead.

That’s what can happen when charity includes relationships and good advice, says Molly O’Donnell, director of Save First.

O’Donnell, a member of Holy Rosary Parish in Northeast Portland, knows the ropes. She herself navigated domestic violence and a stormy financial period, raising four boys on her own. She designed the Save First curriculum based on her experience and from reading the books of financial adviser Dave Ramsey, who suggests getting rid of debt as a priority.

“I realized you didn’t need to live paycheck to paycheck,” says O’Donnell. “You didn’t need to be stressed out.” O’Donnell paid off what she owed, started saving for a house and now has a stable life. 

The same story has been repeated by many Save First clients. 

Local businesses that trust Catholic Charities have begun to notice the good work Save First does. Providence Health and Services, the Vancouver Clinic and Burgerville have asked Save First to serve as their emergency program for when employees hit personal or financial trouble. The companies want their people to stay above water. It’s a matter of respecting human dignity and it’s also good business, since keeping workers stable is an advantage. Several new and big companies are close to joining Save First. 

Those contracts make it possible for Catholic Charities to afford welcoming all kinds of other people into financial coaching.

Key to the program are the scores of volunteer financial coaches. They not only give advice, but by the very relationship inspire clients to be responsible savers.

“If people are going to make a behavior change, they need that accountability, that relationship, that trust,” O’Donnell says.

Catholic Charities has 65 coaches working with 150 clients. More coaches always are needed. New recruits get trained, including in simulated advising sessions. They don’t need financial expertise out front, just “the heart of a teacher,” O’Donnell explains. 

Save First has Spanish-speaking coaches and case managers. And Catholic Charities works frequently with overseas refugees, who have particular financial needs, some as simple as learning how to make change, write a check or open a savings account.

Whereas Catholic Charities social services clients regularly get referred to Save First, sometimes the employer-referred workers who come to Save First get referred to other services, like substance abuse treatment, mental health care or marriage counseling.

O’Donnell says the comprehensive approach with relationships all along the way helps people call up their inner resilience.

“Sometimes bad and unexpected financial times can happen to really good people,” she says. “We are here for them.”