Save First founder and director Molly O’Donnell leads a pre-pandemic class in what some experts call financial literacy. O’Donnell calls it “Save First.” The program is based on what she learned as a struggling single mother. (Courtesy Catholic Charities of Oregon)
Save First founder and director Molly O’Donnell leads a pre-pandemic class in what some experts call financial literacy. O’Donnell calls it “Save First.” The program is based on what she learned as a struggling single mother. (Courtesy Catholic Charities of Oregon)

Robin Woodland, a newly divorced and suddenly disabled transplant from the Bay Area, looked for a long time before he found Catholic Charities’ Save First program for financial coaching.

Woodland can get a little emotional talking about the program. “What a blessing,” he said. “I didn’t have to explain my sorry story. I just had to say that I could use some help.”

Woodland said the Christian spirit at Save First inspired him. “It’s an amazing program,” he said.

Save First is helping more Oregonians in response to the state’s devastating wildfires and the pandemic, which has been especially hard on families living paycheck to paycheck.

In fiscal year 2019, six Save First staff members served 2,526 clients and distributed $254,008 in assistance.

In fiscal year 2020, 13 full-time staffers served 3,784 clients and distributed $2.2 million in assistance.

This fiscal year is on track to see even higher numbers.

No need to reinvent the wheel

Molly O’Donnell, founder and director of the program — which she describes as a financial program developed by a social worker — said Save First had mechanisms already in place to help victims of both the wildfires and COVID-19. The program’s sturdy intake process, online applications, and experience with finance, accounting and delivering community assistance for employees through employers meant the staff could efficiently help in Southern Oregon, where so many lost their homes.

“We went there, called St. Vincent de Paul and parishes and found out what we could do,” said O’Donnell. “We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel, but we wanted to fit in and help.”

The families hit by the 2020 fires who then turned to Save First got help on matters like finding housing and replacing lost documentation.

The goal is to help clients find lasting solutions to poverty and injustice, not just temporary Band-Aids, O’Donnell explained “We’re involved in long-term recovery,” she said, adding that the recovery from the wildfires will likely take years.

O’Donnell is also concerned about the end of the eviction moratorium this July — or perhaps later if there’s another extension. “That’s going to be another huge hurdle,” she said.

The eviction moratorium in Oregon was part of the federal response to COVID-19, extended by the governor and counties.

While O’Donnell envisions Save First as always having a disaster arm, she believes its financial classes will remain at the core of its mission.

“That’s where lives are changed,” she said.

Woodland, a retired marketing and communications professional, said that in his case, Save First’s coaching prevented him from making mistakes that could have left him in serious trouble. “We often don’t want to look, but people are cruising along and then a couple things go wrong,” he said. “Things start to unravel. I get it.”

Woodland called with questions about buying a condo and about his newly vulnerable and changed situation. Having moved to Portland to be close to his daughter here, he isn’t working because of hearing loss, and is living at an Airbnb.

“I just needed advice,” he said.

The first thing that struck him about Save First was the care and respect for others that show through on their website. “I felt immediately welcomed,” he said. “I didn’t feel embarrassed.”

“Save First takes a wellness approach to finances,” said Woodland. “We all know it’s better to treat our health through prevention.”

Good financial health is no different.

He believes that because homelessness is so frightening, it’s natural to want to make the homeless “other.”

“But they’re not other. They’re folks. Save First understands that.”

Woodland said his experience has reminded him of the deep respect and admiration he has for the Catholic faith.

A ‘Total Money Makeover’

O’Donnell knows firsthand how financial insecurity feels. “I was dirt poor, raising kids on my own,” she said.

A book, “The Total Money Makeover” by Dave Ramsey, transformed her finances. That book’s advice underpins the Save First program, which O’Donnell founded in 2009 as an emergency assistance program that employers could utilize for employees who needed help.

“It’s based on relationships, trust and accountability,” said O’Donnell.

The key for clients is keeping track of their expenses, something a majority of Americans do not do.

A corps of Save First volunteers, many of them retired accountants but also including an assortment of younger people, offers people financial coaching. “They all have the heart of a teacher,” said O’Donnell. “It’s about relationships.”

As for those being coached, O’Donnell said they are also a varied population. Refugees receive an introduction to the American financial system. Pregnant mothers come and learn how to budget.

“It’s open to everyone,” said O’Donnell. “You’d be surprised by who comes to us.”

The counselors do not judge clients’ spending choices, they simply help people track expenses.

O’Donnell gave an example of someone spending a lot of their monthly budget on cable television. She noted that people’s circumstances are all different. Perhaps that person is a shut-in, with cable television being their main source of comfort and connection to the outside world.

It’s possible that person might decide they want to spend less on cable, but it would be their decision.

Tracy Smith, another client, had been homeless for years following domestic violence. When the pandemic began, she worked at a bakery that supplied restaurants. As restaurants reduced orders, her hours were cut. She took out a payday loan to avoid losing her apartment. When she fell behind on the repayment, she found herself in deeper trouble, both with her bank and the loan company.

Her Save First counselor learned the interest rate on that loan was 769.15%. Save First negotiated a settlement with the loan company and her bank. Because the settlement was a fraction of what she owed, she is able to pay rent even while her hours at work are still fewer than she needs.

While Save First was providing her coaching, Catholic Charities provided her, her son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren, ages 2 and 5, with Christmas gifts.

“I can’t even talk about it without tearing up,” said Smith. “When people reach out to you and help you out, it’s like someone cares.”

“This is about providing hope,” said O’Donnell. “That’s Catholic Charities’ mission.”

Call 503-688-2659 either to volunteer or if you need help