At Community Credit Union in Lewiston, Maine, financial well-being runs deep. Yet it often begins with a simple but powerful concept: Elevating the transaction.
“We spend about 15 hours of training time with each staff member on financial wellness so they are comfortable working with members in that capacity,” says Betsy Sibley, vice president of marketing and business development at the $88 million asset credit union.
Much of that effort involves helping members manage their accounts. This way, members can provide more opportunities for themselves because they can see money coming in and out, she says. Not only does this lead to fewer overdrafts, members often find more money in their accounts at the end of the month.
This basic understanding of account management is an important tool in the financial wellness toolbox for many Community Credit Union members. The credit union is based in one of the state’s lowest household income tracts, and the area is well represented by immigrants, including from several West African countries, including the Congo, Angola, and Somalia.
New residents typically have few ties to U.S. culture, including the banking system.
“Traditionally, the greatest need is an understanding of the financial products they are using,” Sibley says. “Many are from French-speaking countries, so we’ve tried to fill that language barrier. It’s much easier to understand financial products when someone’s speaking a language that’s familiar to you.”
But “on-the-spot” personal wellness, as Sibley refers to it, applies to long-time Maine residents as well. For example, if a member pulls up to the drive thru with a temporary license plate, member service representatives are likely to ask where they financed the vehicle and how the new car affects their budget, followed by a recommendation to refinance with the credit union.
“We start with the interaction and we find opportunities for the member,” Sibley says. “We’ve found that it’s much easier than just trying to set up a meeting with one of our counselors. If the member realizes they’re in a tough spot, they’ll be willing to work with us.”
Sibley says Community Credit Union revisited its mission, vision and value statements a few years ago as an exercise with its employees, and made financial wellness central to its purpose.
“We had been doing a lot of financial education anyway, and we realized this is who we are,” she says. “Part of our mission statement says we strive to provide financial services to ensure stability for all members, employees, and communities at all stages of life.”
That commitment has been recognized. In 2021, Community Credit Union earned a national first-place Louise Herring Award from CUNA. The award recognizes credit unions that demonstrate the internal application of credit union philosophy to improve members’ finances and increase member financial education.
The credit union also received two first-place Desjardins Awards in the adult and youth categories. The award honors credit unions, chapters, and leagues for their commitment to financial literacy.
One program garnering recognition was the credit union’s work with the students. Community Credit Union played a key role in developing curriculum for students as financial education became a requirement for Maine students.
“We were working with the schools on pilot programs, and then the pandemic hit in 2020,” Sibley says. “All of a sudden everything was virtual or hybrid. But we put modules together for grades from kindergarten through high school using Google docs.”
The credit union also partners with the Maine Credit Union League to host financial fairs for state youth. That project was also transformed into a digital experience during the pandemic.
“Kids pick a career and make their own budget,” Sibley says. “And they watch videos about different budgeting concepts, such as paying for groceries and housing, and [obtaining] credit. They could complete the whole activity as if they were in-person through a Google classroom.”
Community Credit Union also partners with Goodwill Take 2, which focuses on out-of-school and out-of-work adults. It developed a five-session curriculum for participants.
“For some, school didn’t work out and others may be recovering from incarceration,” Sibley says. “We help them with budgeting, navigating day-to-day personal finance, and establishing credit.”
The credit union also received funding from the city and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to develop a six-session personal finance course for adults—and hired one of the program’s participants.
“She’s multilingual, and she was really engaged in the program,” Sibley says. “It was a nice fit for us, and it’s another great story we can share.”