Economic Self-Sufficiency Grant
Boys Town Program Helps Women Find ‘Ways to Work’
BY KARA SCHWEISS | PHOTOS BY DEBRA S. KAPLAN
Transportation is something many of us don’t think a lot about on a daily basis. But what if you suddenly didn’t have access to it? “In Omaha, it’s really hard to get around without a car,” says Melissa Steffes, loan coordinator for the Ways to Work program at Boys Town. “You’re relegated to limited opportunities.”
According to Steffes, “90 percent of people who work in this town have a vehicle.” Working mothers without a car—or the means to obtain one—find em-ployment options limited to businesses in the neighborhood or within reasonable walking distance. If a woman is fortunate enough to have access to mass transit near her home, she’s still restricted to finding an employer located on or near the bus line. And even then, she has to factor in the weather as well as the extra time it takes to get from one place to another.The situation can actually be even worse for a woman whose car has stopped running and either can’t be fixed or needs repairs she can’t afford. If she can’t get to work and be on time every day, she risks losing a job she relies on to keep her family afloat.
And without a car, how does she get her children to child care or school each day? How can she be sure her kids make their medical and dental appointments? What happens when she needs to shop for their clothes and shoes and household groceries?
Enter Boys Town’s Ways to Work, a nonprofit financial empowerment loan program that provides hope and help.
“Through a network of loan offices, such as Boys Town and Heartland Family Services, we provide small short-term, low-interest loans to working families with challenging credit histories,” Steffes explains. “We are an alternative to predatory lenders for people with a demonstrated commitment to achieving self-sufficiency.”
Ways to Work, Inc. is headquartered in Milwaukee. All loan offices are members of the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities, a national network of nearly 500 human-serving organizations, including the two agencies in Omaha.
“It’s made a complete difference in my life,” client Kellie Cunningham says. She was able to purchase a 2008 Jeep Patriot this summer through the program, replacing a rapidly failing older vehicle with no air conditioning. “I don’t have to worry, ‘Is my car going to start today?’ I can actually make appointments and I’m going to be there because my car works.”
Ninety percent of Ways to Work clients are like Cunningham: working women with children, Steffes says. Cunningham works as an office manager, a position she holds because she’s a skilled and dependable employee. “I have to be there every day,” she says. “They rely on me. They need me.” She’s also the mother of a 7-year-old daughter and is expecting another daughter due in December. The pregnancy is high-risk, and Cunningham says she now has peace of mind knowing that not only can she make every prenatal appointment, but when the time comes, “It will be nice to know I can make it to hospital.”
Eligibility requirements for the program include having sustained employment of at least 20 hours per week for six months or more; residency in Douglas, Sarpy or Washington counties in Nebraska; or Pottawattamie or Mills counties in Iowa; possession of a valid driver’s license; being a custodial parent of a child 17 or younger; and meeting household income requirements (80 percent or less of the area’s median income). All applicants also have an impaired credit history, but the program awards 24- to 30-month loans at a fair interest rate of 8 percent.
“They build positive credit by paying back the loan, and we also provide financial education and credit coaching to help our clients pay off debt,” Steffes said. Ways to Work has other long-term positive benefits: 94 percent of participants solidify or improve their employment situation, and more than 40 percent report receiving a promotion or raise. Eighty-two percent are able to sustain their families without public assistance after paying off the Ways to Work loan, and more than a quarter of participants attain additional education. And of the 90 percent who pay off the loan, 58 percent become creditworthy.
Cunningham explains that like other Ways to Work clients, she just needed a boost to reach her goal of obtaining a reliable vehicle. This was the last in a long line of milestones to independence she had reached after leaving an abusive relationship.
“It took me eight years to get out of it. And when I got out of it, I left everything,” she explains. “I lived in my car with a two-year-old for a while. I couch-surfed.”
Four years, a nice home, two degrees and a good job later, Cunningham reflects on her relentless efforts. “We made it out okay and I’ve done a complete turnaround in my life. I’m pleased to say I made it.”
Although Cunningham was well on her way to financial recovery, before Ways to Work she was preparing to purchase a vehicle at a high interest rate—all that was available to her through traditional lenders.
“I had built my credit up and was in the process looking for a car, but I was not going to get the best interest rate; it would have hurt me economically,” she says. “Ways to Work has been such a great thing. I feel so blessed.”
For more information about the Ways to Work loan pro-gram, call 402-630-3862 or visit waystowork.org.