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Urban Upbound Helps Clients Take Path to Financial Empowerment

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Urban Upbound's Queens campus helps map paths for clients to walk on their journey to financial empowerment. NY1's Tara Lynn Wagner filed the following report.

Urban Upbound's Long Island City campus brings together various programs that CEO Mitchell G. Taylor believes should, but don't always, work together. For instance, here, the Workforce Development Program is fully integrated with the Financial Fitness Program across the street.

"And it makes sense," says Lenese Vergara, director of the Urban Upbound Workforce Development Program. "We're seeing more and more employers are checking credit, screening our candidates because of their credit."

It's at the Financial Empowerment Center that clients receive free one-on-one counseling on how to budget and reduce their debt. While the staff can't actually raise anyone's credit score, which is less than 600 half the time, what they can do is send someone around the corner to the Urban Upbound Credit Union to apply for a credit consolidation loan.

"His score was 100 points higher in just one month, just from that one loan from the credit union," says Robin Wilson, director of the Urban Upbound Financial Fitness Program. "That person would not have been able to get that same sort of product through a mainstream bank."

With better credit, it's back to the Workforce Development Program, where hundreds of people have been assisted in finding full-time work.

"Our average wage is about $11 an hour, so that's excellent for the people we are working with, with only a high school diploma," Vergara says.

The relationship doesn't end once a person gets a job. That client is then sent back across the street to learn how to manage their new income.

"What we do here really refines that process of breaking the cycles of poverty," Wilson says. "What do you do once you have money, and what are your options?"

That brings us back to the credit union, which, in a community where 30 percent of the population is unbanked, isn't just an option, it's the option.

"In a six-block radius, there is no financial institution around," says Ash Exantus, CEO of the Urban Upbound Federal Credit Union. "Most people are used to going to the check-cashing place. They don't go to the check-cashing place because they want to. They were going to check-cashing places because they had to."

While the credit union helps them avoid check-cashing fees, the financial fitness program teaches them to save, with an average increase of $2,700. These are all ripples that Taylor hopes will lead to a sea change in the community.

"We want to see elevation, and as we see the city around us and the tide rising, all small ships have the capacity to rise together, and that's what we want to see," he says.

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