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Empowering Survivors of Abuse with Financial Tools

shutterstock_221636809Local bankers recently stepped up to provide survivors of domestic and sexual violence with the tools to handle their own finances. It added up to a meaningful experience, not just for the women, but for volunteers as well.

Money School financial literacy workshops served physical, emotional, mental, and sexual abuse survivors. The majority of women who participated this year were low-income. The workshops lasted five weeks this spring in North Adams and Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and covered a wide range of topics, from budgeting and banking to building assets and credit.

It was offered by the American Institute for Economic Research, collaborating with Elizabeth Freeman Center, which provides services and support to survivors of domestic and sexual violence in Berkshire County.

Many women in abusive relationships are deprived of the opportunity to make personal economic decisions. In this situation, the abuse can also become economic, which means women are denied access to work, to their wages, or to checking or savings accounts and other financial tools. By teaching basic financial literacy, Money School’s goal is to ensure that women gain the knowledge and skills to make their own financial decisions.

These workshops were directed not only at helping women build their financial future; they also provided an opportunity for local financial institutions to introduce their services to this community.

One important component of the program is bringing bankers to women for individualized coaching. Rather than referring women to specific banks, which may be intimidating to those who have never accessed banking before, Money School brings bankers to women at Elizabeth Freeman Center.

Stephanie Martin, a coach from Greylock Federal Credit Union in Pittsfield, said, “Hosting this type of program in a safe environment helped eliminate any barriers between the participants and financial institutions. I noticed everyone felt more at ease and comfortable.”

Breaking down these barriers didn’t just help participants. Several bankers mentioned how giving back was a powerful experience for them personally. They asked how they could contribute more resources for their participants and what more they could do to help women build their financial independence.

“Some of the financial concepts that we take for granted as bankers are life changing to those who have never learned the basics of managing money,” said Maureen Phillips, a coach and financial education program coordinator at Greylock. She said that in just two hours, coaches formed strong bonds with the participants.

Bankers worked with participants to review their credit scores, brainstorm ways to improve their credit, and put financial goals into action.

Phillips added, “It was so rewarding to see the smallest sense of relief, then empowerment, as participants realize that they just might be able to do this by themselves and move on with their lives. That is an incredible feeling.”

Financial coaches represented a number of organizations in Berkshire County, including: Berkshire Bank, NBT Bank, TD Bank, Greylock, the Brien Center, Lee Bank, and Williams College. The coaches were integral in providing participants with individualized, hands-on support.

Money School is funded in part by a Kip Tiernan Fellowship from Rosie’s Place, Boston, Mass., founded in 1974 as the first women’s shelter in the United States.

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