Nonprofit, business sectors team up to bolster financial literacy in Sonoma County
Athan Tucker, 18, feels really lucky that he got a good education in personal finance at the NextGen Trades Academy, a program of the nonprofit LIME Foundation in Santa Rosa. The academy prepares students to get jobs in the construction trades, and it includes personal finance because LIME Foundation founder Letitia Hanke knows money management is a vital life skill.
Personal finance was Tucker’s favorite part of the NextGen curriculum. He’d had some personal finance in high school, but not like this.
“It was unlike any class I’ve taken before. It was a great opportunity that not a lot of people get,” Tucker said. “Budgeting, saving, those are very important things I really need to know. Right after class was over, I immediately started investing, setting up a budget. I’m super happy to know how to do that.”
Right after class ended he also got a job, snapped up by Redwood Moving & Storage in Santa Rosa to help with all aspects of hauling freight. Tucker feels confident he knows what to do with that paycheck.
“If you’re getting out of school and want to go to college or move out on your own, you have to know how to manage your money,” Tucker said.
NextGen Trades Academy is an example of several community efforts to expand personal finance education in Sonoma County. Many developed online versions during the pandemic.
“I think there’s probably an urgency because of the worry over financial stability. People want to know what to do. People are thinking about what you need to have in life,” said Susan Campbell, a professor of education at Sonoma State University who is developing personal finance curriculum for teachers.
While the efforts reach only a fraction of Sonoma County’s 68,194 school-age youth, which includes about 21,600 high school students, they are an indication of how seriously the problem of financial illiteracy is viewed by local business leaders and educators.
The financial strain imposed by the pandemic upon many individuals and households has led to a flood of cries for help from people who have no savings, too much debt and no plan for riding out an unexpected disaster, according to local safety net providers, including nonprofits and government agencies.
The lack of financial education for many has exacerbated the crisis and spotlighted the importance of new and ongoing efforts to fill that learning gap.
Banking sector responds
Vic Trione, chairman of the board of Luther Burbank Savings in Santa Rosa, has partnered for 25 years with Junior Achievement, a 102-year-old international nonprofit that sponsors free curriculum and activities to help youth in the areas of work readiness, entrepreneurship and financial literacy.
For example, in 2019 and 2020 Luther Burbank Savings provided major funding, planning and staffing for JA Finance Park Mobile, which last year taught personal finance to more than 800 middle and high school students from over 20 classes at seven schools in Sonoma and Napa counties. Trione has committed to expanding the program in the future.
Students start the program with 13 weeks of personal finance education in their classroom or online, with curriculum from Junior Achievement of Northern California and volunteer teachers upon request. To practice what they’ve learned, students spend a full day at the mobile Finance Park, held at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.
With an iPad in hand, they travel among 22 business kiosks where they shop for their family’s needs — like housing, groceries, insurance and child care — while trying to balance the budget they have been assigned.
JA Finance Park Mobile can accommodate about 100 students per day and last year ran for two weeks in February. Trione and his team signed up 80 volunteers, including 42 Luther Burbank Savings employees, to staff the event. Five other banks also participated. An enormous undertaking, it takes a year of planning, said Warren Harris, a senior vice president at Luther Burbank Savings.
Trione is passionate about the need for personal finance education, and every morning of the event he personally welcomed the students to Finance Park. Chuckling, he recalled asking a student what he got out of Finance Park, and the boy replied, “I know one thing. I’m not having any children. They’re too expensive!”
“We see their eyes open wide,” said Mona-Gail Baker, a loan underwriter at Luther Burbank Savings. With their new understanding of what it takes to run a household, “I think a lot of them go home and hug their parents.”
Credit union a key player
Brett Martinez, president and chief executive officer of Redwood Credit Union, is also committed to offering free financial education to area youth. Since 2004, when Redwood introduced youth accounts with newsletters, the credit union has initiated several programs to connect youth with the life skill of money management.