Catholic Charities Oregon is hoping to expand a program that offers financial classes and coaching for low-income workers in the state.

The Save First Financial Wellness program is part of the Family Success Center, run by Catholic Charities Oregon.

Molly O’Donnell, director of the Family Success Center, told CNA that the goal is not merely to provide temporary assistance, but to give people the tools they need to achieve financial independence.

“It really grew out of our work for those coming with rent and utility assistance, and realizing that that’s not enough to give them that Band-Aid, but if you really want to help a person you want to give them some tools and help move them up the economic latter.”

O’Donnell’s team administers an employee aid program for Providence Health and Services, which is Oregon’s largest private employer. Through the program, they offer financial assistance to low-income workers, helping them maintain housing, pay bills, and balance finances and saving.

The team hopes to expand to other businesses in the coming months, particularly in rural areas. The fees they collect for administering the employee aid programs are used to offer financial help to other clients who come through their doors – who may be homeless, pregnant, recently released from jail, or financially uneducated.  

O’Donnell emphasized that the fees from contracting with employers are what allow the model to become sustainable, and to then “serve those people who that cannot afford the service.”

Clients who come to the Save First Financial Wellness program begin with an individualized assessment, which helps identify underlying needs and challenges. These may include wage garnishment, mental health issues, domestic violence, identity theft and immigration status.

From there, clients are connected with local resources to help them in any obstacles that are identified. They are also able to take part in financial wellness classes through Catholic Charities, which teach about budgeting, cash flow, savings, debt reduction, and credit.

After completing the financial wellness courses, individuals may participate in a three to six month financial coaching program, where an instructor helps them identify their financial goals and the steps to accomplish them.

This individual coaching is key to Catholic Charities’ success with the program, O’Donnell said. One-on-one financial coaching nearly doubles the success rates of those who have already taken financial education classes through the organization.

“While people leave us with the hopes and the tools to make a change, because it is a behavior change we are talking about, really they need support and accountability and relationship and trust in putting that into practice,” she said.

“So that’s why we developed our financial coaching program, where we work with the clients, one-on-one, really to meet their financial goals.”

Some clients also qualify for a match savings program through Catholic Charities.

“Those clients who express they want to buy a home or go to college…we can help them get into a house by matching their savings over a period of time,” she said.

O’Donnell recalled one client who had fled domestic violence and was living in a van with her three children.

Several years ago, the woman came to Catholic Charities, which was able to help her find temporary housing, domestic violence support groups, and counseling services. Eventually, she was able to take part in the financial coaching program.

The woman has now been promoted at work and found housing close to her kids’ school. She is also saving for a home with the organization’s match saving opportunity and is expected to have saved $12,000 in three years.

O’Donnell believes that financial education is a necessity for everyone, regardless of background. As an important component of a healthy family life, it is a skill that the Church should encourage, she emphasized.

“When you think about the reasons for divorce in our country, the number one reason is finances,” she said. “We should be addressing that as the Catholic Church, as far as the pre-marriage prep.”