Operation HOPE: Banking on our Future
By Lynn Doan, Internet Reporter

Lyle Walford grew up in a low-income neighborhood in South Bronx, New York, where just getting by took priority over saving up for the future. When it came time for college, Walford was forced to take out loans to attend the City University of New York, Hunter College and Pennsylvania State University, where he received a total of three degrees.

Twenty years later, Walford is still paying off $35,000 in loans-at a nine percent interest rate.
Now, currently the principal of Vito Marcantonio Elementary School in East Harlem, just over the bridge from his own hometown, Walford wants his students to be more prepared than he was to finance their education. So this year, he brought into the classroom Operation HOPE's Banking On Our Future (BOOF) program, an initiative that teaches inner-city youth the basics of banking. By sending trained industry professionals in classrooms to share their expertise, students learn to save for the future.

"The volunteers really connected with the kids," Walford said. "They taught them an important lesson on saving for what you need instead of spending money on what you want."

Launched by the non-profit investment banking organization Operation HOPE in 1996, BOOF has educated more than 125,500 youth in eight states and the District of Columbia through a network of 1,500 trained volunteer banker-teachers. The organization recruits volunteers from financial institutions, including Citibank, FleetBoston Financial, Bank of America and the American Bankers Association.

Students Learn the Basics and More

In collaboration with the American Bankers Association's "Teach Children to Save Day," BOOF and Operation HOPE founder John Bryant, U.S. Secretary of Treasury Jack Snow and professionals in the finance industry visited a Marcantonio Elementary School classroom of 25 fifth graders, bearing gifts and lessons.

After receiving complimentary calculators, carry bags, and one-dollar bills autographed by Secretary Snow, students listened as the banker-teachers introduced each of BOOF's four core topics: the basics of banking, how to open and maintain a checking and savings account, the importance of credit and the power of investment.

The sessions guide students through every aspect of the banking industry, from where dollar bills are made-at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington D.C.-to the definition of stocks-a way for individuals to own parts of businesses.

"You'd be amazed at how sharp these kids are; they're like sponges," said Andrew Sousa, Vice President Chief of Communications for Operation Hope. "It's simply amazing to witness a sixth-grader begin to understand what compound interest is and how, if you have that, you'll never get out of debt."

Sousa said the lessons are primarily aimed at "instilling in the kids a sense of hope." When the students see Bryant, political leaders and CEOs in their classroom, Sousa said he hopes they see role models.

"We want to show the kids that they don't have to be rock stars or actors to be rich," Sousa said. "If you make decisions wisely with the money you already have, you will find yourself wealthy simply because you planned wisely." 

Teaching Them While They're Young

However, Sousa stressed that wise decisions must start early in the game, which is why the initiative targets fourth through 12th graders, specifically low-income youth like the majority of students at Marcantonio.

"We want to reach kids while they're young, so that they can start making wise decisions early," Sousa said.

Even before entering college, Sousa said students begin receiving unsolicited offers for credit cards. And by junior year of college, the average student has received four unsolicited offers.

This does not sit well with Sousa, who said that, out of the one million bankruptcy filers last year, the largest age group was those between the ages of 18 and 24.

"We want to reach them early, so they don't graduate with a B.A. in psychology and a minor in bankruptcy and customer debt," he said. "We want to focus on kids before they get those solicitations."

Joe Goode, a corporate spokesman for Fleet Bank, agreed. He said it was important for banks to partner with BOOF to teach young people long before they reach adulthood.

"It provides them with important money management skills, so that they can make confident, smarter decisions as adults," Goode said. "These skills will help them throughout their entire lives."

Financial and Moral Support

The Fleet Boston Financial Foundation, which launched its own $30 million-campaign to deliver financial education last year, has already donated $100,000 in support of the initiative.

Also as part of the sponsorship, the foundation has made available more than 75 employees as banker-teachers for BOOF, who deliver the lessons to 4,500 middle school students in an estimated 150 Boston public school classrooms.

"Educating America on financial literacy is very important to Fleet, but we can't do it alone," Goode said. "That is why we need partnerships with organizations like Banking on Our Future, whose core mission it is to deliver this information to young people."

On top of the financial support from institutions like Fleet, BOOF is also garnering increasing support from print and radio outlets. In observance of this year's Financial Literacy Month in April, BOOF launched a "Call to Serve/Call to Action Media Campaign," encouraging media outlets to promote the importance of financial literacy education by running advertisements and funding billboards.

Ads with one-liners, such as " Betcha my dad's debt is bigger than your dad's debt" and "Dad, when I grow up, can I be in debt too?" along with radio ads urging listeners to "help kids get money smart," are now running across the country.

Though the sends a message to parents across the nation, Walford insisted that the most effective part of the initiative is the personal, face-to-face lessons.

In fact, Walford said the lesson had such an impact on the students at his school that, during lunchtime on the day of the visit, none of the students spent lunch money frivolously on the prized soda machines.

"Students love those vending machines, and it was like 80 degrees out, but nobody decided to spend their money," he said.

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