Financial literacy course pays life dividends for needy

PHOTO/SUSAN KOVACS Residents of The Children’s Home of Easton were recognized last August after completing the inaugural financial literacy course taught by Merchants Bank.

Nearly 80 percent of U.S. adults believe they could benefit by talking to a professional about everyday financial questions, according to the 2017 Consumer Financial Literacy Survey.

The survey, conducted by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, also shows that about 40 percent of adults carry month-to-month credit card debt and that rollover debt is $2,500 or greater for 16 percent of them.

Meanwhile, only 40 percent of U.S. adults have a budget.

It is against this backdrop that Bangor-based Merchants Bank began creating customized financial literacy programs for nonprofit organizations in the community. Since 2015, the bank has partnered with Safe Harbor, the Third Street Shelter, ProJeCt of Easton and The Children’s Home of Easton.

At The Children’s Home, the financial literacy course is offered to young adults who are part of its older youth successful-living program, which focuses on people 18-21 who have decided to remain in foster care.

The home houses these students and provides them with a life skills curriculum to prepare them to live independently, said Gabby Toedter, older youth program director and admissions coordinator at the home.

The Children’s Home of Easton already tried to work financial literacy into its life skills training – topics such as banking and money management – but Toedter and her team weren’t pleased with the results.

“We were not getting anywhere,” she said. “We were not educating them to the point that we wanted.”


So, the development department at the home suggested that Toedter reach out to Merchants Bank.

“They had a program that they were really using with some other agencies,” Toedter said.

“When I met with them, they were very flexible and willing to look at the needs of our youth and our population.”

The resulting program was delivered from April to August last year in 10 sessions that each lasted about 90 minutes. A second offering of the course began in November.


Alden Roberts, a customer service representative and teller at Merchants’ Easton branch, has been teaching classes at The Children’s Home of Easton, and both Toedter and Roberts’ colleagues at the branch credit him for much of the success.

“Alden is very good in a couple of areas,” Toedter said. “The kids love him. He is really funny, sarcastic, easy-going and easy to work with. He is younger and he really gets on their level.

“He is really realistic. He talks to them about what their goals are. That has been the biggest benefit of the program and why it has been successful.”


Roberts said that keeping the attention of the students is the biggest challenge.

“It’s about teaching it in a way that that they are going to grasp it,” he said.

It’s not about making a budget; it’s about “going to the store, and are you going to get cigarettes or are you going to get bread. It’s teaching in a way that relates to them.”

Roberts leaves the bank twice a month to teach the class during the middle of the workday, said Sandee K. Kennedy, vice president and regional manager for Merchants.

“It becomes a challenge with staffing, but the sacrifice is worth what we are bringing to the community with this program,” she said.


Ashley, 20, is one of The Children’s Home residents who benefited from the classes.

“The Merchant Bank workshop was able to teach me about credit, which I knew nothing about,” she said.

“I learned how to build credit, make sure I do not have bad credit and why I need to have a positive credit score.”


Toedter said she anticipates running the program twice a year, in the fall and spring.

She stressed how vital a program like this is to the older youth residents of The Children’s Home of Easton.

“It is important to note that these students are at the beginning stages of adulthood,” she said. “They are at the point they need all the guidance and assistance they can get.

“They don’t have a positive parental role model and [the home] is acting as their parent. It is our responsibility to provide them with all the resources that we can.”


Toedter said she hopes to partner with other community organizations on other life skills classes.

“The more that we can reach out and utilize those community resources, the better,” she said. “This [partnership with Merchants Bank] has been really beneficial to us. This has been the pilot program. With the success of the financial literacy course, we have looked at other community resources.”

The home is working with Second Harvest Food Bank to develop a program on cooking and healthy eating, according to Toedter.

“It’s been wonderful to realize that we can use community resources that are willing to provide a life skill for these kids,” she said. “Merchants Bank has really helped with that.”

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