Bloomington, IL, 16 December 2015 | 07:00 AM America/Chicago When Opportunity Knocks, LISC Helps You Answer Nicole had been working with a company for more than two years when she unexpectedly found herself unemployed. “My world was turned upside down,” she says. She worried about her ability to support her three children while she went to school to earn her communications degree. “The job market was so tight. I had to uproot my family from our apartment to one that was more affordable.” Nicole had been jobless for almost a year when she overheard a group of people talking about a resource center that helped community residents find employment. Nicole made a mental note to stop in later that day. That decision would change her life. “I walked past the Woodlawn Financial Opportunity Center (FOC) over a thousand times. I never would have gone in if it weren’t for those strangers on the train,” says Nicole. Financial Opportunity Centers (FOC) are an initiative of Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC). The goal of FOCs is to provide bundled services to help unemployed or underemployed individuals. The services include financial coaching and career planning, employment services, and access to public benefits and other income supports. When Nicole visited the center, she shared what she wanted to gain from the financial coaching. Center staff worked with her to restructure her credit and pulled up her credit report and showed her some debt she didn’t even know she had. With one of her kids in need of braces, and another graduating soon, the center showed Nicole how to put together a budget, helping her to make ends meet. Nicole’s work history and resume proved so impressive the center hired her as its office manager even though she had no previous finance experience. She now recruits others who need the help she once did so they can also take advantage of the FOC. “When people hear ‘financial coaching,’ it’s a turnoff,” says Nicole. “But people don’t really know what it entails. It’s not supposed to be an intrusive process.” Instead, FOCs help clients to find workable solutions to financial problems. “When you’re in the middle of the storm, having someone there to help you and guide you can take a lot of the stress away,” shared Nicole. Financial coaching at FOCs is tailored to each individual’s needs—it is not a cookie cutter approach. Coaches take the time to talk with clients, get to know their situations, and assess far more than work history. From there, they work with clients according to their needs. Clients may require a refresher on how to interview for a job or they may need help finding work opportunities that best fit their skills. Nicole works at the Woodlawn Resource Center, a FOC run by LISC partner Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH) in Chicago. In addition to coaching, the center has a computer lab so people in the community can use the internet to look for employment or create resumes, as well as an on-site mental health specialist, family support services, and lots of free programs like digital literacy courses. Nicole encourages everyone—whether they are in a good financial position or not—to take advantage of FOC services, and not just because it is part of her job. “Everyone can stand to learn from the centers,” says Nicole. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.” Many job placement centers simply tell people what to do after they get a job. FOC advisors offer one-on-one follow up and hold clients accountable to their goals. “It’s not enough to just help people get jobs,” says Seung Kim, LISC Program Director. “FOCs provide multiple interventions simultaneously to remove barriers and to provide participants with the tools to stick with their jobs over the long term. Financial coaching helps clients learn to navigate the financial system, build good habits, and take the steps they need to reach their goals.” Along with work-force development services and financial coaching, FOCs help with access to income support such as public and medical benefits, childcare subsidies, and private benefits like access to eyeglasses. Many clients first come into a FOC simply looking for work. However, the job-readiness program requires clients to meet with a financial coach. “At first they’re usually hesitant to meet with a coach because they just want a job,” says Seung. “But afterwards, the majority realize the importance of coaching—80 percent of clients come back for additional sessions.” Most FOC clients have very low income—80 percent are in the lowest American household income bracket. Even saying they have “low-to-moderate income” (LMI) is generous; many are 200% below the poverty level. Problems range from chronic unemployment to financial stressors like having no transportation to work. Even sick days are a systemic issue for lower-level employees. They often don’t have benefits like sick days. “There are a lot of ups and downs for our clients,” says Seung, “We try to think about success in terms of job retention. We measure financial capability in terms of net income, net worth, and making sure people are improving their credit scores.” However, it is not always an upwards path. When you’re working with clients over the long-term, things can go wrong. Sometimes clients lose their jobs. “Sometimes they just need a nudge in the right direction,” Seung says. “Our coaches empower clients with skills to weather the storms.” From addiction to stability Before 49-year-old Traci found one of LISC’s FOCs, she was recovering from drug addiction. She had a credit score in the 400s, and was struggling to pay off debt. Traci first learned about the FOC at Volunteers of America-Texas in Houston when she brought her sister, who was also struggling financially, to seek help there. As they sat through the orientation, she realized she needed help too. Traci got involved in all the FOC had to offer. She attended a four-day workshop to learn how to create a strong resume, enhanced her writing skills, and took advantage of other resources to improve her job search. Traci was paired with financial coach Danita Wadley. Danita helped her put together a budget and taught strategies for getting a financial foothold. She met with Traci several times a week and showed her the steps necessary to better understand and meet her financial responsibilities. When asked about the program, Traci speaks fondly of the coach with whom she forged a deep bond. “Danita worked around my circumstances,” Traci recalls. “She would check up on me every now and then, and it really helped to keep me accountable.” Traci believes her relationship with Danita is beyond that of coach and client—she sees Danita as a mentor who has helped her accomplish things she would not have believed herself capable of two years ago. “It’s still shocking to me,” she says about how far she has come. “I never would have thought this was possible.” With her newfound skills, Traci has gone beyond settling her debts and raising her credit score, now over 700. She has also set money aside in a savings account, paid off a dump truck she bought for her business, and is saving for her own house. But Traci is not stopping there. She has not forgotten her roots and those who are in the position she once was. Traci took her brother to the FOC to help him figure out his finances and get his own truck for the business. On top of that, she is going to school to earn an associate’s degree in counseling people in order to help people with substance abuse issues. Now clean for more than five years, she hopes her recovery success story will inspire hope and motivation in others struggling to recover and get back on their feet.