Charles Elliott joined the Mississippi Credit Union Association right after college and became its youngest president/CEO at age 31. Thirty-five years later, his passion for credit unions and people remains strong.
“He embodies the credit union philosophy, putting others’ needs above his own,” says Sarah Dale Harmon, assistant vice president of marketing for $87 million asset Members Exchange Credit Union in Ridgeland, Miss.
His caring and compassion were in full gear after Hurricane Katrina, recalls Cheryl Oggs, vice president of the Mississippi Credit Union Association. After Oggs’ family lost its home, Elliott called regularly.
“I didn’t even work for him at the time, but he cared enough to check on our well-being,” she says. “He did that for everyone he knew who was displaced by the hurricane.”
Harmon noticed, too, that Elliott spent countless hours raising funds for employees affected by the storm. He drove trucks of food and clothing to those in need, and devoted himself to making a difference.
Nearly 150 credit union employees in the state lost their homes during Hurricane Katrina, and Elliott was instrumental in helping them recover. “So many people were affected and it was a challenge determining where to focus our efforts,” he recalls.
“We didn’t want to cast too wide a net where we wouldn’t make a difference, so we focused on credit union employees,” Elliott explains. “People lost their past, present, and future. For some, there was no evidence they ever existed. It’s a normal human reaction to feel like something’s wrong with you, so we provided counseling and gave a lot of hugs.”
He also helped credit unions recover after the storm. “We acted as a liaison between affected credit unions and the rest of the national credit union family to communicate operational needs, meet members’ needs, and give people hope.”
Elliott has tremendous appreciation for what the credit union movement truly means.
The biggest challenge, he believes, is getting more people to understand what a credit union is and how they can benefit from joining one.
“My greatest passions right now are battling financial illiteracy and ensuring that everybody has access to safe, responsible financial services,” Elliott says. “Credit unions’ unique philosophy and structure position them to play a powerful role in these areas and affect real, positive change in members’ lives.”
Toward that effort, Elliott is working with the state treasurer to provide financial education in every high school. “We have to provide kids with the knowledge they need to make the right financial decisions. When people go to school, they learn the Pythagorean Theorem, but not how finance works. Now, which is more important in real life?”
About 70% of all credit unions chartered in this country no longer exist, Elliott says. “It particularly affects our state because of the number of unserved and underserved people here. It’s so very important that we keep credit unions as viable as possible.”
Elliott points to one Mississippi credit union he says is making a huge difference in members’ lives. It’s located in one of the poorest U.S. counties, which has about 1,000 residents, of whom roughly 450 are members.
The chance that credit unions such as these might no longer exist disturbs him. “The smallest credit unions are some of the most-needed,” he says. “Every credit union had $5 in assets at one time, and it’s easier to develop existing credit unions than to charter new ones.
“Credit unions are the most logical institutions in the world, and it’s a privilege and honor to help develop and promote them,” Elliott says. “I wake up each day happy about what I do.”