Hispanic Heritage Month is an annual celebration of the generations of individuals who have positively shaped the fabric of America through their many contributions. At Heartland Alliance, we celebrated by asking staff and volunteers what Hispanic Heritage Month means to them and how this understanding influences their work to support our participants. Hear from a few our team members what themes most resonate with them.
Manager, Asset Building, Heartland Human Care Services
Opening Doors, Creating Opportunity, Economic Justice
Volunteer, Vital Bridges West Side Pantry, Heartland Alliance Health
Serving the Community, Culture & Language, Values & Traditions
Senior Attorney, Immigrant Legal Defense Project, National Immigrant Justice Center, Heartland Alliance
Honoring the Journey, Valuing Diversity, Immigrant Rights
In a room tucked away in the Bridgeport Art Center, a young woman is reflecting on her last year. Using stamps and a small booklet, she’s recounting all of the ups and downs of 2018. For her, 2018 was about growth, about knowledge, about building her life.
This year, she can buy gifts for her children and family with her own money. She recently acquired dental insurance for the first time, and is making plans for a big trip in the near future. At the bottom, a list of the hardships that she has experienced during the past year – hardships that she overcame.
“This is about hard work, and I’m proud of what I put into this program and into myself.”
Last month, she and about two dozen other women – most of them mothers – celebrated a milestone. Each one of these women have spent the last year working with Heartland Alliance’s Asset Building program, learning new techniques and habits to help them save money and increase their wealth.
Each of the graduates have saved over 900 dollars in the bank, with an average of approximately $1,400 in each savings account at the end of the year. With Nearly 70% of adults having less than $1,000 in their savings accounts – and almost a third of all Americans without any savings at all – these women have much to celebrate.
For Andres Serrano and Mercedes Guiterrez, Asset Building team coordinators, the chance to inspire and educate such a dedicated group of women was an honor.
“We all have ups and downs, and building wealth can be one of the hardest things a person can do. But it’s so important, and we’re all in this together.” Said Andres.
Without a doubt, the challenges of making ends meet can be difficult for all of us – and this group of graduates had their fair share to overcome. From single parents to new immigrants, from non-native English speakers to new entries in the workforce, the women of the Asset Building program have achieved much in just a year.
As one of the graduates mentioned during the reflection period of the program, the difference from where these women started to where they are now is vast.
“As immigrants, we have to learn everything from scratch. We do things so differently in other parts of the world. Not only are we learning how to save and build, but we have learned to do it well.”
For many of the graduates, the single most important lesson learned this year wasn’t something technical – but emotional. These women have developed more than just knowledge, they’ve developed a confidence – and that confidence will carry on into real success. These are individuals who are ready to take on challenges, and meet them head on.
“I’m lucky to be here. I’ve had challenges, no doubt – but I’ve also had real triumphs, especially when it comes to my savings,” said recent graduate Diane. “The Asset Building team taught me to appreciate all of the wins, big or little – and that it all counts toward the bigger picture”
As the Director of our Asset Building program, Theresa Gibbons helps Chicagoans not only escape poverty – she helps them build long-lasting financial security and wealth. See what makes her tick inside.
What got you into this work?
As the youngest of 5 kids, I’ve always been conscious of what I perceived as fairness—even if it was over who gets to ride in the front seat. The more I learned as I got older, I turned this sense into issues of economic opportunity and equity.
Your program deals with both policy and direct service, could you explain in your own words why this is the case?
A lot of the narrative around financial security has to do with making sound financial decisions and planning for the future. But personal wealth is overwhelmingly determined by where you come from, what opportunities come your way, and how you are prepared to take advantage of them when they come. So we need to build both skills and opportunities for people to build wealth.
Was there a moment where you KNEW you were in a job that was right for you? Could you talk about that?
Several years ago our policy team created a racial wealth gap timeline that traced policies to help build wealth in the US (past and present) and the systematic exclusion of people of color. When you look at that, you can see how we ended up with the current wealth gaps – and it gives us some clues about how to bridge the divide. Doing this work at Heartland, where my colleagues are addressing this from so many angles, makes me feel like we can do something about it.
What is your favorite part of your job?
I love hearing from team members when they celebrate victories—especially when they indicate a deeper shift, like a participant reporting that they aren’t afraid to open their mail or that they are sleeping better at night.
How can others help your work?
Let’s be more honest about the way we portray people’s choices as “good” or “bad” and recognize that people usually are doing the best they can. Oh, and we can also use volunteers for events and workshops!
Last year, Melody and her children moved to the South Shore neighborhood into a home all their own. It was unlike the apartments or shared living spaces they’d become accustomed to. As a single mother, with kids ranging from ages three to 16, this was a meaningful experience for the whole family. A family that works together as a team by sharing the responsibilities of chores and homework.
Working as a phlebotomist, Melody spends much of her day commuting to her job on the far north side, which takes approximately an hour and a half one way. It’s not easy, but it’s her part of the team effort, and she happily spends the time and energy so that her family can have a place of their own. She has real goals for her family – short term, mid term, and long term goals focused on self-sufficiency, success, and achievement. All of her efforts – the commuting, the long shifts, the children’s responsibilities – ultimately lead to the end goal of financial security.
“I want that stability. I’m tired of having to pick what bills to pay month to month. I’m tired of not having the basics in my house for my kids.”
Hard working and determined, Melody’s goals lead her to Heartland Alliance’s Asset Building program that helps individuals accrue assets – like a home, a retirement account, a college degree – to help build financial security. In Melody’s case, it was about starting on the right foot and building her savings account.
“I met Mercedes my case manager, and she helped me figure out how to start from the beginning. Things like writing out your budget, paying yourself first. That first twenty bucks in every paycheck should be stashed away – treated like it was an expense.”
The Asset Building program incentivizes saving by matching every dollar on a 2:1 basis up to $400. In her first few months, she achieved the first goal and more. She then signed up for the program’s IDEA Initiative, a branch of the Asset Building program that provides educational tools and seminars focused on financial education, housing and career development.
From building credit and reducing debt, to learning the ins-and-outs of home ownership, Melody has been spending the little free time she has by partaking in the trainings and seminars. To her, it’s all about achieving her family’s short, mid, and long term goals through knowledge and action.
“I’m a nerd. I’m always ready to learn new things, and this has been an opportunity for me to learn new things that better myself and my family.”
With a newly bolstered savings, the family’s financial security is better than ever. Melody has been able to shift her focus toward ensuring her children’s success and continuing her own education. In the coming years, she expects to receive her nursing degree and eventually become a nurse practitioner.
“Right now, it’s about helping me and my kids succeed. We’re going to start having graduations, promotions, things like that – and I want us to be ready for all of it.”
Today, Melody and her children are enjoying their new home and new sense of security. They spend the evenings together, doing homework and finishing up the day’s responsibilities. One of Melody’s happiest achievements of the year has made those nights even sweeter – a new kitchen table, big enough for everyone to sit down together.
It’s a great spot for homework and dinner. They sit together for Saturday breakfasts and spend time enjoying one another, despite the hectic day-to-day and countless responsibilities. With a new home, a new nest egg, and their new table, Melody and the family are feeling more and more hopeful for the future every day.
“This has all just been so relieving. I feel like I’m ready for whatever comes next, and I know I have help with Heartland Alliance’s Asset Building team.”