Loans, financial literacy, and more drive Community Promise in first year

At the one year mark, leaders of the Community Promise Federal Credit Union report it's been a successful venture.

Feb. 26
marked the anniversary of the grand opening in 2013 of the credit union and the organization will hold its first annual meeting on March 15.

Michael Ross, the CEO, calls the first year a success. "I want the community to know we are here with a better financial alternative than people of low- and moderate-incomes have had."

At first glance the numbers may not look impressive. Twenty-three people have received loans. There is a little over $520,000 in assets. Almost half of the deposits have been solicited from community supporters, rather than customers from the targeted neighborhoods.

But as with many community service organizations, it takes more than numbers to appreciate the work being done. It is necessary to understand the credit union's mission, the needs it addresses, the differences brought about in the lives of people, in this case the 23 loan recipients. Moreover, it is important to understand how an organization like Community Promise adds to the overall community equity.

It does not take much time around Mike Ross to catch a glimpse of the soul of this small organization. After a working a full shift at his main job, Ross works from 4 to 7 p.m., five days a week, and often well beyond closing time. For his time and effort Ross receives a salary of one dollar a year. Why does he do it?

"If I can help one person improve her situation, I feel I have done something. And if that person pays off the loan from us, we have been successful," Ross says.

He speaks proudly about how Community Promise is as much about teaching financial literacy as it is about writing checks. He spends several hours with each applicant. He not only assesses their ability to repay a loan, but he also helps them develop a budget, and even those who are turned down for a loan receive help in resolving their problems. He says he "gives people a road map to get where they want to be financially."

It was the vision of creating an institution that could provide people of limited means with an alternative to check cashing businesses that motivated Lee Kirk to get involved. He took the position of project manager and was given the task of raising the necessary funds to construct a facility and establish the organization. This was a paid position, but it is clear that
Kirk donated a significant amount of his time.

He was motivated by a concern for people who become trapped after borrowing money at such a high interest rate that they cannot possibly repay the loan and thus eventually end up paying far more in interest than the amount they borrow. With bad credit records, or none at all, these folks have had no place else to turn than the commercial money lenders.

Kirk worked with a group of community volunteers over a three-and-a-half year period to establish Community Promise as a Community Credit Union. It is incorporated under section 501c1 of the Internal Revenue Code with the formal status of a cooperative and chartered by the National Credit Union Administration with all accounts insured up to $250,000. A board elected by members of the co-op governs it.

To open the doors of Community Promise, Kirk describes a long and arduous process of creating a physical home, a fiscal base, and the necessary organizational infrastructure in which several key agencies provided financial and technical support, including the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation, Local Initiative Support Corporation, and Downtown Tomorrow, Inc.

He stresses that there is no quick fix and that "binding relationships and trust," as well as hard work and commitment by many people, are necessary to assist the people that Community Promise serves.

Anyone living, working, worshipping, volunteering, or attending school within the city limits of Kalamazoo may qualify for loans. However, the targeted service areas are the East Side, Fairmont, Vine, North and Edison neighborhoods.

Another key figure in the Community Promise story is Dr. James Houston, who was recruited as the first (and current) chair of the board. He brought knowledge of finance and a long history of community service to the organizing team. He sees a high level of potential for growth, but he also cautions that growth needs to be accompanied with great care in adhering to the vision and organizational principles.

Mike Ross, Lee Kirk, and Jim Houston are three key community people who came forward to address a significant community issue. Many others on the board and in other roles have worked hard to make this organization possible.

Houston speaks to its importance: "I believe that Community Promise will be considered as a community treasure, as people in Kalamazoo realize the long term effect it is having, and will have, on the low-income citizens of our city."

(Federal statute allows for Community Promise to receive donations from individuals and organizations. However, they must be made through a fiscal intermediary. In their case it is Guardian Finance and Advocacy Services, located at 420 Alcott Street, Kalamazoo, MI 49017. Donations should be marked for Community Promise.

George Martin received his Doctor of Ministry Degree from the University of Chicago Divinity School. He has reflected for many years on the interplay between creativity, leadership, and on building communities.

The Community Promise Federal Credit Union's annual meeting is 10 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., Saturday, March 15. Coffee and donuts will be served.
When you think of a cooperative a credit union may not be the first thing that comes to mind. At Community Promise Federal Credit Union they are making that unique financial model work for the benefit of those in the neighborhoods. George Martin has the story.
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