Fostering financial responsibility in L.A.
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STEVE CHIOTAKIS: We’ve focused a lot lately on how to talk to your kids about money, how to teach them to spend, to save. All leading up to a special live show in Portland, Ore., Nov. 9. One thing we’ve learned so far: the parents role is very important.
Now imagine what that’s like for the half million kids who are in foster care in this country. In and out of different homes, interacting with different families. That’s where Pathways comes in. The program — part of United Friends of the Children — teaches foster kids about living on their own.
A couple of weeks ago, I visited one of their apartment complexes in Whittier, about 15 minutes east of downtown LA.
Chiotakis: Hey there. How are you?
Sandra Williams: Great!
Chiotakis: Hi, I’m Steve Chiotakis.
Williams: Hi, I’m Sandra Hill-Williams. Thank you for coming.
Chiotakis: Thanks for having us. We appreciate it.
Sandra Williams is a director over at UFC.
Williams: We’re an 18-24 month transitional living program, and we serve foster youth who have aged out of the system. We work with them on budgeting, but we wrap a number of services around them: career development and budgeting’s within our life skills series, so we do cooking and communication, all sorts of things, and extensive counseling.
The youth who’ve aged out of the system are over 18. Yet those who live here represent only a fraction of the 1,500 or more who leave foster care in L.A. County every year.
One of them, Tafari Gonzalez-Aird, is a tall, lanky 21-year old who’s still trying to find his way.
Tafari Gonzalez-Aird: I was in the foster care system for about eight years and then I aged out, emancipated. I entered July 30. I was homeless for about two months and they helped me out big time.
Chiotakis: You were homeless?
Chiotakis: Tell us about that.
Tafari: Really I became homeless, because I couldn’t maintain you know rent, car payment, gas, utilities, cell phone. All this stuff that’s considered really basic.
To live here, Tafari and his roommates need to have jobs and pay rent. Real world stuff. But once they’re done with the program, Pathways reimburses three-quarters of that money back. Program organizers think of it as “seed money” for the future.
The complex features a manicured lawn and flowers, just like you’d find anywhere else. And in the center, a place to get together
Chiotakis: This is pretty much the heartbeat, the nucleus of this whole area. Seems like where everybody congregates and tries to get together and discuss what’s going on in their lives — about their finances and just about living real life. And this is the community room where we’re walking in right now.
Also mandated by the program are once-a-week classes the young people have to attend to learn life skills. This Tuesday session featured personal finance.
Williams: OK, so as we said, today we’re going to be talking about budgeting. Who can tell us what a budget is? What do we mean by budget?
Student: Money that you have to save and use.
Williams: Money you have to save and use.
Conversation turns lively and the students here are eager to make their budgets work. But it’s not easy and you can see it on their faces — looks of bewilderment, confusion. Some have head in hands. Others, like Tafari, are busy punching numbers on the calculator.
Chiotakis: Hey Tafari, mind if I sit with y’all in this group for a second?
Chiotakis: Just sort of observe what you’re doing?
Chiotakis: All right.
Tafari: So we have a scenario of the person being named Tamara. She’s unemployed, she has a 14-month-old daughter and a $80 per month cell phone plan.
These are real world decisions: Income, credit, placing importance on certain items. All things Tafari and his group will experience from now on.
Chiotakis: Does she need a cell phone?
Tafari: No, she does not. But then she looks at the problem of if she tries to cancel that cell phone, she looks at paying more money out of that then that monthly budget that she barely has enough to manage everything.
Student: She kinda does need a cell phone for someone to call her, in case something happens, like if she gets a job, she needs to have a cell phone to call.
Tafari: That is true. I didn’t think about that way. I just wish she had more money to work with. I don’t like this exercise.
Chiotakis: Let me ask you a question as you’re looking through these different personal finance situations. What was the most important thing on that list?
Javon Bronson: Our groceries.
Chiotakis: Groceries. What about rent?
Javon: I have to eat before I pay rent.
There’s some logic behind Javon Bronson’s thinking.
Javon: Well, if you don’t eat, you’ll die and you won’t have a place to live.
While teaching the class on this day, Sandra Williams uses an example everyone can relate to: Money in and then out of pocket.
Williams: What are some exercises you can do to really have a realistic account of the money that you’re spending. To be honest, I know, I have a challenge, sometimes you go to the ATM and you get $20, $40 and then a few days it’s gone, you’re wondering, “Where did that money go?”
Chiotakis: I think that’s a question for Javon.
Javon: Could you repeat that again?
Williams: So Javon, what do you think might be helpful to you? You said that the money’s just burning through your pocket, right? So could be a helpful exercise for you to get a sense of how much money you’re spending and also, equally as important, where your money is going? Where are you spending your money?
Javon: I don’t know — keep receipts?
Pathways says there are quite a few success stories. For us, they invited an alum of the program back to talk about big changes in her life. When she came in, 25-year-old Maureen Nwandu says she was going through a very tough time.
Maureen Nwandu: When I first came here, I had no kind of experience with being on my own or anything. I didn’t know how to save money, I didn’t know how to do anything.
I figured, I need to try to learn how to be on my own instead of being dependent and being sexually abused by a family member. So, it was time to go.
Maureen, who spent more than a year and a half in the program, graduated back in 2006, and says things got really desperate before she got help.
Maureen: Honestly, I was the type of person who would always fail at everything. So whether it be school, I got into drugs, semi-prostitution, whatever I could do to just get a buck. And just being here, I kind of really didn’t believe I was going to actually graduate from this program.
But just with the encouragement from the staff, they kept pushing me and saying “You can do it, you can save the money. Yeah, you messed up, but eventually I got it right.”
Chiotakis: Where did you think you were going to wind up?
Maureen: Probably like dead, pregnant with somebody’s baby that I don’t know, you know.
These days, Maureen is going to nursing school. She has a job, working at a mental health facility. And she says she got a fresh start and a savings account.
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