One paid off $8,200 in debts in a year, set up an emergency fund and now has time to be home with her children after school.
The other decided to learn from past mistakes, curtail eating at restaurants and spend more quality time in the evening with her young son.
Wendy Staff, 45, and Jeri Delegans, 46, both single mothers, are the first-ever graduates of a life skills and money management class given by Love INC (Love In the Name of Christ), a referral clearinghouse that works closely with local churches to help the needy.
The program is called TEAM — Training, Equipping and Mentoring — and is designed as a hands-on way to help people climb out of poverty.
Classes, taught from a biblical perspective, have been meeting weekly since February 2012. Eight families are enrolled, working with a cadre of volunteers from area churches. Topics include finances, cooking and budgets, setting boundaries with others, conflict resolution, anger management and effective communication.
Each family is assigned a mentor to help them through the entire program. Participants say it’s hard work.
“I was determined not to quit,” says Delegans, who has four children, ages 21 to 5, and two grandsons. “Sometimes it was really challenging. But I wanted to show my kids that no matter how much I struggled, I never gave up.”
Elizabeth Benefiel, Love INC executive director, created the free program with the dual goal of breaking the cycle of poverty and changing lifestyles.
When Staff and Delegans graduate March 5, “it will be extremely gratifying,” Benefiel says.
Step One in the class: locking up debit and credit cards, with checkbooks coming out just once a week for mentor and participant to work on together.
“It took a little getting used to,” admits Delegans, who works as a child-care attendant. But it helped.
“I was divorced, trying to make ends meet with two part-time jobs,” she explains. “I had two credit cards in collection. I was still falling under the poverty level. I kept getting a backlash from my old bills. It was no fun.”
The Rev. Jim Erixson, a pastor at First Presbyterian Church, suggested Delegans try the TEAM class.
Once she mastered budgeting, “I did 1,000 percent better.”
Delegans learned to pay for the basics, rent and utilities, and not splurge. “On a limited income, you can’t do the Golden Arches.”
One of the most valuable lessons, she says, was learning to set limits. “I have a hard time saying no; I’m a people pleaser.”
The program uses vouchers as incentives; participants earn them through consistent attendance, completed assignments and regular meetings with mentors. They trade vouchers in at a pantry kept by Love INC, filled with canned goods, donated clothing and paper products.
That helps free up income to pay bills, Benefiel explains.
Like Delegans, Staff says she never learned basic life skills growing up.
But the situation for Staff, who has three children, ages 10, 12 and 15, was vastly different.
“I was making good money,” reports the registered nurse. “But I was spending it, making sure my kids had things. It nauseates me now to think about it.”
Delegans says the training works.”I was able to do it with God’s and everyone’s help.”
Staff agrees.”Now I can actually be a grown-up. I can’t cheat and lie and beg. I can take care of my kids and not be a broken little girl.
“Now I control money instead of it controlling me.”
She never saved anything from her paycheck and at one point had a $500 payday loan that quickly escalated into a $700 debt. At her lowest point, her health was deteriorating, and she was about $1,300 overdrawn at the bank.
“I wouldn’t open the mail,” Staff admits. “I was afraid of looking at the bills; they were like stinky tennis shoes hiding in the closet.”
She remembers her desperation. “I was on my knees, searching for relief and I knew I need a lifeline.”
That came from Shelly O’Neill, wife of the lead pastor at West Valley Nazarene Church, who recommended Staff enroll in the TEAM program.
TEAM volunteers immediately realized that Staff’s payday loan was a huge financial burden. One night, Staff prayed for relief; if she could just get $500, she would pay off the remainder of the loan and concentrate on her other bills.
The next day she opened her mail to find a check for $500 sent from a friend in her church.
“I still get chills thinking about it,” she says.
From there, everything began to improve.
Slowly, Staff started paying medical bills and student loans by cutting back on extras and prioritizing needs. Her family gave up cellphones, cable TV, road trips, brand-name clothes, restaurants and movies.
“We got down to bare bones, and that was hard for the kids. But spiritual support got us through,” she says.
Staff has taken some of the nutritional knowledge she’s learned in the class and translated that into baking bread and cooking homemade meals.
“It’s truly transformed my identify,” she says.
The class goes beyond finances, Benefiel says, to introducing strategies for tackling life’s other difficulties.
“Chaos with money carries over to chaos in the household,” she explains. “Unless you address brokenness, you can’t get people out of poverty. So you wrap love around them, mentor them one-on-one and surround them with volunteers who believe in them.”
— WHAT: A free life skills and money management class
— WHEN: 6-8 p.m. every Tuesday for a year
— SPONSOR: Love INC (Love In the Name of Christ)
— INFO: 509-453-2942