Q&A with CAH’s Tabitha Wolters

One of the ways Community Action House works to end poverty is by teaching financial literacy.

The organization recently shared how Tabitha Wolters, one of the Dutch organization’s financial wellness specialists, worked with a client who had little hope for her financial future.

The client was living with her family because she had lost her home. Her credit score was 523, she had thousands of dollars in collections and loans she couldn’t repay.

Over several sessions, Tabitha and the client walked through the steps necessary to achieve the client’s financial goals. Over the past two years, the woman has been able to find an apartment, pay off many debts and develop a sustainable budget. By May, her credit score had risen to 629. This meant she could finally own her own home.

The Lakeshore asked Wolters to talk about how the organization helps customers in similar situations.

The shore of the lake: For over 50 years, Community Action House has provided a range of services to families and individuals, helping to provide food, clothing, shelter and the opportunity to develop the skills needed to lead stable and prosperous lives. What would you like people to know about CAH’s services?

Tabitha Wolters: The Community Action House does a fantastic job of engaging and welcoming guests. We have a personal and inviting space, we work with them to achieve their goals, and we strive to treat everyone with dignity and respect.

TL: One area in which CAH helps its clients is rebuilding their credit. What are some ways you can help people with limited incomes become more financially strong and increase their credit rating?

TW: Our one-on-one financial counseling services help our clients by jointly establishing a spending plan and reviewing their credit history. Then we create an action plan with their short and long term goals. Our financial wellness staff provide support and accountability for these goals, as well as financial counseling to support them. Two practical ways to build credit are to make all payments on time and not to exceed 30% of your credit limit.

TL: Often, people in financial difficulty have a lot of debt that can seem impossible to pay off. How do you help your clients manage their debts?

TW: Debt can be very overwhelming and even traumatic. To minimize this, we remind our clients that financial freedom is a marathon, not a sprint. We break down their short-term goals into achievable action steps they can take within a month. The first step is to ensure that all bills are paid on time. The second step is to create a small emergency savings account. The third step is to start paying down debt, paying small bills one at a time and using the “snowball effect” to pay off larger debts.

TL: How long do you work with someone to change their life financially and what are the benefits when they are able to complete your program?

TW: The time we spend with our clients varies according to their needs. Some of our clients only need one or two visits to recognize that they are financially independent. Some of our clients have been working with us for over a year. The average client probably works with us for four to 12 months. The goals for completing our program are to have a balanced budget and achieve their own financial goals, which are different for each person. Some financial goals might be a better credit score, creating a savings account, saving a house from foreclosure, or buying a house.

TL: What are some of your client success stories?

TW: I had a customer come in for a pre-purchase consultation with high debt on at least six credit cards. With my encouragement, she set goals for herself on what she needed to do when she received her tax return and eventual stimulus check. His goals were to pay off his debts and build up savings. She was able to pay off all her credit cards and is debt free. She said to me: “I feel so good and grateful to have received a stimulus to help me and for your help. I know that I got myself into this mess and with all that I could get out of it . I’ve learned a lot about myself, and I love the path I’m on right now.”

We had a homebuyer education course participant who didn’t know where to start in the home buying process. They were very scared and overwhelmed. After taking the course, they gained confidence and realized that they could fulfill their dream of buying a home. About six months later they bought their first house in Holland.

TL: How can people benefit from CAH’s help in building their credit scores?

TW: We do not have any qualifications or income guidelines for our financial wellness programs. All of our programs are free and are available to anyone in our community who wants financial support.

TL: Since opening the Food Club this year, how has it changed the way you serve customers?

TW: It’s wonderful to have our financial wellness services on the same site as our food club, as in previous years our team was at a different service site. We can greet our members as we see them shop, and if shoppers have questions, we’re on hand to answer them. Our customers can also purchase food and have a financial wellness appointment in the same time frame which is an added convenience.

Geraldine L. Melton