For Good: Clearwater-based social enterprise helps immigrants gain financial literacy

In a small portable classroom behind St. Petersburg’s Northeast High School, nine young adults listen intently as Sandee Rains, a volunteer with Project Prosper, talks to them about credit reports and credit scores. 

“Why is building credit important?” she asks the class. “Why should you stay within the limit on your credit card?” “What’s the difference between debit and debt?”

The students are all recent immigrants to Florida. They’re here to learn the basics of U.S. banking system, from how to open a checking account and balance a checkbook, to how to budget money and build a good credit history.

“The class offers useful information and it helps me improve my English,” says Nadege Barault, who moved to St. Petersburg from France a year ago. Jennie Xheni, who is from Albania, is taking the class as a refresher. So is David Lopez, who is from Mexico.

“To my knowledge there isn’t another program like this in the Tampa Bay area,” says Project Prosper trustee and co-Founder Robin Warren. “Now we’re looking at other communities in Florida that might be interested in taking our model and adopting it for their needs.”  

The brainchild Ann and Warren Haendel, Project Prosper is a unique, Clearwater-based nonprofit organization that offers free financial literacy classes, small no-interest loans and financial mentoring to recent immigrants and refugees. 

“Our goal is to empower people with the information they need to understand our banking system and to help them achieve financial integration and become productive members of society,” says Warren. 

As Project Prosper notes on its website, coming to the U.S. can be daunting for recent immigrants and refugees. There’s often a language barrier, the challenge of integrating into a new culture and then the difficulty understanding the financial basics, especially for those who have limited exposure to stable banking systems in their home countries.

“They know about credit cards, but may not understand about credit limits, late fees and paying more than the minimum each month -- or how important it is to establish credit history,” says Warren. “We also stress that the banking system in this country is safe. Many of our participants are coming from countries where that isn’t the case. They wouldn’t dream of putting their money in a bank or letting other people know how much money they have.”

Making dreams come true

Sandra Hidalgo, her husband, Carlos, Sr., and their son, Carlos, Jr. are the perfect example of a Project Prosper success story. The family’s story is even more remarkable in that just over five years ago they came to Tampa Bay with relatively nothing after fleeing political unrest in Columbia.

“We met them when they were students in the financial literacy class we were teaching at the Pinellas Refugee Education Program, says Warren. “Sandra came up to us after class and asked how she could get a small loan to buy beds and furniture for her apartment.”

Sandra qualified for Project Prosper’s small, zero percent interest loan and matched savings program. Borrowers pay 10 percent self-interest that is held in a savings account and returned to them at the completion of the loan. If they also complete a financial literacy class and work with a mentor, they are eligible for an additional dollar-for-dollar match from Project Prospect. 

Nancy McCarthy is a senior VP and Chief Compliance Officer at Raymond James Bank. She’s also a volunteer with Project Prosper, and works one-on-one counseling borrowers. In 2013, Sandra Hidalgo was the first person McCarthy mentored.

“Project Prosper offers a welcoming hand and assistance,” says McCarthy.  “Most banks typically don’t offer small dollar loans. They don’t have the infrastructure to manage a program like that. 

“Project Prosper’s loan program is unique in that it gives people a chance to build a good credit history. That makes it easier to assimilate into our financial system,” says McCarthy. “I’ve mentored several people now and I’m impressed by how motivated the participants are.”

As participants make payments on time each month, Project Prosper sends that information to the credit bureau. “Without a credit history, it’s even difficult to get a credit card,” says McCarthy.

McCarthy not only mentored Sandra, but also put the family in touch with the right banking specialists when they wanted to buy their first home in the U.S. That allowed them to apply for a mortgage from a first-time homebuyer program.

Last year, Carlos, Sr., approached Project Prosper about a small loan to cover the cost of U.S. citizenship for himself and his son. He wanted McCarthy as his mentor. More recently, their son asked if McCarthy could mentor him, too, not for a loan, but so he could gain more knowledge about banking and finance.

Last  August, Carlos, Sr., was sworn in as a U.S. citizen and then in November, Carlos, Jr. became a citizen. Now Sandra is waiting for final word on her citizenship, which she hopes will take place in the next few months.

As a way to give back, the family now volunteers with Project Prosper, from serving on the annual community fundraising committee to translating documents from English to Spanish.

“The Hidalgo family is an especially good success story because they started as financial literacy students, became borrowers and now they’re back as volunteers with us,” says Warren.

Aida Sanchez was a psychologist in Cuba, but working as a housekeeper at a hotel in Clearwater when she came to Project Prosper for help. She and her husband had to flee Cuba after her husband published a newsletter critical of the government, says Warren. 

“Many people come to this country with professional degrees but can’t practice here without the right U.S. credentials,” says Warren. “They take menial jobs to get a start.”

Aida wanted a small loan to buy a laptop so she could take online courses for certification in her field. 

“While we were working with her on the loan application, we found a used computer in good condition. So instead of buying a new computer, Aida was able to use that loan to pay for visa applications to help bring her daughters here,” says Warren.

Grassroots initiative

Project Prosper had an inauspicious start 10 years ago, when Warren and Haendel held a small fundraising event in Haendel’s backyard, inviting friends and family to help them launch their fledging social enterprise.

“I had been an in-house counsel for a bank in Charlotte and Ann had spent time volunteering in the developing world,” says Warren. “She wanted to do something with financial literacy and we began talking about creating a small loan program.” 

Their first financial literacy class was held at Tomlinson Adult Learning Center, a Pinellas County School System program in downtown St. Petersburg that offers ESOL, or “English As A second Language”, among other programs. Other adult education programs in the area began hearing about the classes and started asking if they could have classes, too.  

Now there are 20 programs throughout Pinellas County, as well as Hillsborough and Pasco Counties. Classes are held at all of the adult ESOL schools, as well as several churches, refugee settlement organizations and Gulfcoast Jewish Family & Community Services.  

Project Prosper’s most recent program is at Enterprising Latinas in Wimauma, where classes are offered in Spanish. (Read more stories about Wimauma in 83 Degrees.)    

The organization is entirely volunteer-driven. Maxi Wood, Project Prosper’s program manager and only full-time employee, coordinates a team of about 150 volunteers. Most have a background in banking or finance. Some are retirees.

“Over the years, we’ve built relationships with many of the financial organizations in the area and they encourage their employees to volunteer with us,” says Warren. 

“Raymond James Bank was the first bank to partner with Project Prosper,” says McCarthy. “I decided to personally volunteer as I love their mission and felt I could share my knowledge. Many of our employees have felt the same way and so we’ve had a long history of volunteers serving on Project Prosper’s loan committee, teaching classes and mentoring their borrowers.”

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Read more articles by Janan Talafer.

Janan Talafer enjoys writing for a diverse group of clients, including print and online publications, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. One of the highlights of her writing career was flying with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL for a feature about this elite military team. A journalism graduate of Bowling Green State University (OH), Janan’s early career was in health care marketing and public relations for hospitals in Connecticut and Tampa Bay. She is an avid gardener, loves East Coast swing dance and enjoys touring around St. Petersburg on the back of her husband’s scooter.