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Getting to a Goal

Looking Glass Youth and Family Services, an agency supported by United Way, helps teach savings

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of articles about programs and individuals who benefit from United Way of Lane County. The agency is in the midst of its annual fall fundraising campaign.

For Mehiska Jackson, buying her first car was about more than taking carefree road trips and late-night adventures with her friends.

It was about growing up.

As she handed over the $1,800 she'd earned through a savings and money management program at Looking Glass Youth and Family Services, Jackson, 20, felt a new sense of independence, responsibility and fear about the 1997 Chrysler LHS she received in return.

"I didn't know if I could take care of it, or if I could handle it," she recalled.

She and most of her siblings had grown up in and out of foster care, and none had ever owned a car before.

But with the help of Looking Glass' Individual Development Account program and her assigned mentor, Andrea Hansen-Miller, Jackson has seen her confidence grow.

"Andrea was able to step in with the whole IDA program and teach me how to become an adult," she said.

Sometimes, she had to hold herself back from spontaneous purchases so that she could make her monthly payments. Other times, she turned down expensive activities with friends to conserve her money.

Now, she said, "there's no such thing as 'I can't' - because I know that I can."

The program, largely funded through a three-year United Way grant received this year, is designed to help foster youth learn the value of money and the satisfaction of setting and reaching a savings goal.

Participants in the program choose a desired asset - a car, a few months' rent or even a school trip - and spend the next six months depositing a total of $1,000 into a secure savings account established and maintained by the program. They complete eight hours of financial literacy training and meet with a one-on-one mentor to make sure they're on track with their payments.

Last year, 15 students successfully completed the program. Since the program's next financial year began in July, nine new youth have opened accounts.

If the youth meet their goal, the program matches their $1,000 savings with another $2,000, and walks them through the purchase process. Through the United Way grant, which provides the matching funds, the program is able to award $20,000 to $25,000 in match funds annually.

"It's pretty cool to be a part of a collaborative process with the youth," said Hansen-­Miller, who mentors three youth through the program. Some are curious about taxes, she said, while others want to avoid choosing a lemon at a car dealership. "It really addresses all areas of life, and figuring out how to navigate resources," she said.

For foster youth - half of whom will experience homelessness at some point in their adult life, Hansen-Miller said - learning how to save and spend money wisely is especially crucial.

"Whereas in a traditional family you might be able to rely on your parents for money if things got rough, for our youth that may not be an option," said Hansen-Miller, noting that some youth are on their own once they phase out of the foster system.

Some youth witnessed poor examples of money management at home or never gleaned financial wisdom from their foster parents.

When they go to college and receive their first financial aid check, many don't know what to do with a large sum of money, and "like typical teenagers," they can easily squander it without careful planning, Hansen-Miller said.

The program, designed for youth between the ages of 14 and 20, employs a strict savings regimen to help participants understand the reality of making payments. For the program, youth have to keep a job to participate, and if they miss more than one $167 payment during the six-month savings period, they can't complete the program.

Participants who don't have a steady job can opt for a "micro" program, where the goal is to save from $333 to $500 over a three-to-nine-month period. Based on their savings goal, the program will match their amount to a total of $1,000.

Some have purchased a computer or car insurance policy through the program - "anything tied to successful independent living," Hansen-Miller said.

She recalled one participant who saved his money for braces. "Without the IDA program, these youth wouldn't be making these purchases at all," she said.

The Looking Glass program motivates students by giving them the freedom to choose an item that they really want, said Elena Fracchia, United Way's director of income and engagement.

"We want them to establish the savings skills and be working toward something that's really important to them," she said. "It's a really exciting resource for them, and it's fun to see the success that they've had."

In Jackson's case, the program provided a jump-start into a lifestyle of budgeting. She used the remainder of her $3,000 to buy insurance, pay for her license and run a tune-up on her car, and she still puts away at least $100 every month to cover insurance, maintenance and emergencies.

As a junior at the University of Oregon, she sets aside money in advance for rent each month and plans to purchase her books for winter term now - rather than in January - while she has the money.

She's even saved for a little fun. She's not concerned about paying for her holiday travels - she already did. "I know how much I can and can't spend," Jackson said.

She hopes other foster youth will take advantage of the program - not simply to earn money, but to gain footing on the road to adulthood.

"Life is going to be hard," Jackson said. "But with resources like Looking Glass here, you can do it."

Ready to Learn

Kids in Transition to Schools, a United Way-aided program, starts children on the road to academic success


Editor's note: This is the first in a series of articles about programs and individuals who benefit from United Way of Lane County, which is in the midst of its annual fall fundraising campaign.

Eryn Knutson can hardly believe the change she's seen in her 6-year-old daughter over the past few months.

"It was so stressful to watch her struggle back in preschool," Knutson said of Zoey, who suffers from anxiety and recently started kindergarten at Bohemia Elementary School in Cottage Grove.

"Every day it would be, 'Do I have to go to school tomorrow?' " she said of past school years. "Now, she looks forward to it and there is no fear."

The change, Knutson said, is largely the result of a parent-­child kindergarten readiness program that she and Zoey have completed over the past 12 weeks. The free summer and after-school program, called Kids in Transition to Schools, or KITS, prepares children for elementary school success by giving them a head start on the academic, social and behavioral expectations for kindergartners. It also teaches parents how to prepare their kids for success.

The program is funded in large part by United Way of Lane County, which has allocated more than $131,700 since 2010, including $47,000 in 2013.

On Monday, while parents learned about school involvement and community resources, Zoey and the other children in her 20-­student classroom practiced the songs they had learned throughout the program and created mortar­boards for their graduation performance and ceremony next week.

Some students still squirmed in their chairs, and others needed an extra reminder to follow directions - they're 5 and 6, after all - but each one has grown immensely over the course of the program, director Katherine Pears said.

"It's always really wonderful to see how much kids change," Pears said. "The personalities and the confidence emerge over the summer."

With the help of their instructor and two to three classroom assistants, Zoey and her classmates learned early literacy and numeracy skills and what to expect on their first day of kindergarten.

They practiced walking in a quiet line down the hall, transitioning from one activity to the next, and listening to their teacher.

They even received advice on how to ask someone to play or be their friend - and how to respond if the answer is "no."

"Without any practice, they might come into the first day of school and melt down - and that's not a good way to start for anyone," Pears said. After just a few weeks in the program, she said, most kids enter kindergarten with a " 'been there, done that' attitude."

The KITS program began eight years ago as a research project among children in foster care in Lane and Marion county schools. Pears, who is a senior scientist at Oregon Social Learning Center, discovered that children who participated in a school readiness program displayed better literacy and self-regulation - two skills that are crucial but often lacking in young students.

She partnered with United Way of Lane County in 2010 to bring the program to two schools in the Springfield and Bethel school districts.

The Bohemia program, the first in the South Lane School District, is in its second year. Nearly 25 percent of kindergartners completed the program. Bohemia Principal Jackie Lester said she has seen a huge difference in those students' ability to handle the classroom setting.

"The social skills are a huge, huge piece of what KITS focuses on, and really those are the building blocks that students need before coming in and conquering the academics," she said. "It is a life-saver to have someone help us provide that to kids before they actually come into kindergarten."

Lester has noticed that parents who complete the program tend to be more involved in their children's education from the start.

Students in the program attend their "play group" class twice a week for four weeks before school starts, and once a week for eight weeks into the year. Parents attend every other meeting.

Knutson, who heard about the program at Bohemia's open house this summer, said the instructors in her daughter's program class knew how to handle Zoey's anxiety and even taught her to cope by showing her breathing exercises.

In her parenting class, Knutson learned how to prepare her daughter for new experiences ahead of time, and how to establish routines that Zoey could count on through the transition to kindergarten.

Knutson says she has seen her typically shy and reserved daughter branch out - Zoey is now taking swimming lessons and invited a few kids from her play group class to her birthday party earlier this month.

"It helped her not be scared, helped her know what to expect," Knutson said of the program. "She's more out­going toward other kids and more confident in herself."

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