By Melissa McKeon CORRESPONDENT
WORCESTER — Several times a year, Debbie Neal will get up in front of a group of girls — not college women — and introduce them to folks who will teach them something valuable: financial literacy.
The program is part of the United Way of Central Massachusetts’ Women’s Initiative, and the financial literacy piece seeks to teach girls through the use of mentors. Ms. Neal, Holy Cross College director of academic budget and operations, will be joined by about 100 other professional women from the Worcester area who volunteer to help teach middle school girls skills that can help them stay out of all kinds of bad places and achieve financial independence.
The Dollar $cholars program has been going on for half a dozen years and is distinctive among such programs, Ms. Neal said.
“The thing that’s a little bit different is we’re bringing in professional women from the community to interact with our scholars. “It gives them exposure to what it means to be a professional woman in today’s world.”
The women don’t just teach the basics of financial literacy. They share their own experiences, the choices they’ve made to pursue their own careers.
The program that began years ago under an outside contractor was taken over by the United Way’s financial literacy committee, which designed its own program, said United Way Women’s Initiative Program Director Anne Wettengel.
“They really felt that what we were getting from the independent contractor was not really in tune with what was going on with the girls in our community,” Ms. Wittengel said.
The community involved has changed as well.
The program has expanded to towns outside Worcester, in the areas under the United Way’s purview, and next monthwill be teaching 250 eighth-grade girls from Shrewsbury’s Oak Middle School.
Ms. Wettengel said the expansion to suburban Worcester gave some people pause, especially those who thought only girls from the inner city needed such training.
“It doesn’t really matter your socioeconomic level; everybody needs to know about budgeting,” Ms. Wettengel said.
Teaching financial literacy isn’t just teaching girls not to be poor; it’s about teaching them independence, no matter where they live, or how.
And girls who are financially independent are less likely to stay in abusive relationships. Those, too, can happen anywhere.
Ms. Wettengel said that in addition to teaching them budgeting and giving them career role models, the Dollar $cholars program gets girls to think about their choice of career and how it can support the lifestyle they expect to have.
It also helps them learn about their financial personalities, Ms. Wettengel said — whether they’re spenders or savers — and how that can impact their lives.
While teaching such literacy can have a profound effect on what these young women do in their futures, Ms. Neal said it also seems to have a profound effect on the volunteers.
“It was something we didn’t expect to happen,” she said. “It’s a win for the scholars, but it’s a very meaningful experience for the volunteers as well.”
Volunteer Janet Moran can testify to that.
Ms. Moran had recently retired from teaching middle schoolers when she first volunteered for the Dollar $cholars program. There, she ran into one of the students from the school where she’d taught, one who’d had serious challenges. After the program, Ms. Moran recalls running into her outside walking down the street with the goodie bag they’d given her. She stopped to ask if she’d enjoyed the program, and got a sincere “Yes.”
“To have reached a kid like that …” Ms. Moran said.
The program hopes to reach not just youngsters but their parents, who can help support their adolescents more if they are engaged as well, and the conversations that arise from the program can go on at home as well.
In its 10th year, the Women’s Initiative continues to enlist volunteers. “In those years, we’ve probably touched 1,500 girls,” Ms. Wittengel said. “We’re helping them become the leaders of tomorrow.”
The Women’s Initiative is looking for 100 women who are willing to volunteer for one day at the Dollar $cholars financial literacy conference to be held from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 22-24 at Assumption College. To volunteer, email Ms. Wettengel, email@example.com.
From left, Dollar $cholar forum hosts Anne Wettengel, Women’s Initiative Program manager; Judi Kirk, director of community impact; and Kerry Conaghan, vice president of community impact for United Way. (T&G Staff/STEVE LANAVA)
Worcester Telegram & Gazette