From Corporate America to AmeriCorps VISTA

November 6th, 2015 by

By Janice Johannsen

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor 23 years, I was a slave to my job. I say this not to equate my status to African Americans who were enslaved in this country but because, at my worst moments, that is how I felt.

Before moving to Savannah, I worked for a major entertainment company in Hollywood, California, a Fortune 500 company that was owned by an even bigger multimedia corporation. I didn’t care much for my job but I went to work every day because the money was too good to pass up and the benefits were unbeatable. Those on the outside looking in thought it was exciting. I’d see George Clooney or Ashton Kutcher on my way to the commissary, work out next to George Lopez at the company gym and have access to free merchandise that beat the local Toys R’ Us.  At first, it was exciting; after all, a bright, shiny object is attractive but over time, like most everything else, it started losing its luster. When it was all said and done, I was nothing more than a cog in a wheel whose purpose was to protect the company’s assets so that it could continue to be a money-making machine.

Of course I’d be hypocritical if I didn’t acknowledge that I enjoyed the money. To live life comfortably is something most of us desire. But at what price?

Over 10 years ago, I got deeply involved with a small nonprofit organization that sends poor kids in the Philippines to school. It10941040_869838259726702_6142924340733328274_n was through this work that I realized I had the passion to do nonprofit work and that I could do it well. When we moved to Savannah because of my husband’s job, I knew I couldn’t go back to working in corporate America. After searching long and hard, I grabbed the opportunity to work for Step Up as an AmeriCorps VISTA.

I have to admit that initially I was afraid to take on the challenge. After all, it is easier to ignore poverty than to address it. I’ve always lead a fairly comfortable life and frankly, I was afraid that the work would be depressing. I am glad to say I was wrong.

11741022_954779277899266_1215838927150003950_o (1)My year as an AmeriCorps VISTA has been one of the best things I have done. I have met wonderful and inspiring people that I never would have met had I stayed in my own little world. I have spent time in poor neighborhoods and as a result I have a better understanding of people’s lives. Not having children of my own, I have learned that being with kids gives me so much joy. Perhaps most importantly, I have a renewed sense of hope that, when faced with adversity, a community can work together to make change. I found that when you are working to make a difference, the rewards are numerous and life-changing. I once read that the best kind of work is one that affects people. Whoever wrote that was right.

As I end my service as a VISTA, I leave with more experience, skills, and a clear idea about what I want to do next. Working for a cause such as reducing poverty shifts your focus in life. I may no longer get that generous paycheck but, for the past year, I have been coming home with a smile on my face instead.

Learn more about AmeriCorps VISTA 

Credit Union Hero

May 28th, 2015 by

It’s not often that a financial institution is a protagonist. But in Savannah, Georgia Heritage Federal Credit Union came through like a hero this year, working with Step Up to create a new loan product aimed at low-wage employees.

More than 60 percent of Chatham County residents have sub-prime credit; thousands of residents remain stuck in a cash-based economy (albeit some by choice, others due to mistakes or, yes, bad choices) and at least 10 percent are completely unbanked. Many — truly untold numbers, since there is no straightforward way to count these individuals — are working full or part-time. For several years, Step Up staff and our partners have tried to identify ways to connect our working poor, some barely a paycheck away from poverty, to public benefits they’re eligible to receive that effectively boost their earnings. A significant opportunity has existed among thousands of wage-earners who find themselves in need of a small-dollar loan but who don’t have credit or whose bad credit translates into exorbitant interest rates.

When a life emergency or unanticipated need pops up, most employees ask for payroll advances, borrow from retirement plans, or turn to the unregulated car title loan industry.

Step Up has urged banks and credit unions to consider offering a safe loan product through area employers. Georgia Heritage recently stepped up. Employers can now offer through the credit union loans of $300-$1500 to those who have been employed in good standing at their companies for 6 months or more. No questions asked, no fees, and monthly payments are determined by the credit union and borrower, with amounts processed through payroll deduction. Credit scores are not part of the determination process and payments are recorded at credit bureaus so these employees can build a positive credit record. Further, once the loan is repaid, the auto deductions continue with payments going to the employee’s savings account. They can easily opt out of course but once individuals get accustomed to not having that $50 or $100 available, they typically keep it up, and in this case building savings.

Chatham Area Transit, Hospice Savannah, and Chatham County are employers who are on board, or just about, with the Life Line Loan. Step Up will be gathering data to document what works– or doesn’t– about this loan product. But we know that it won’t bury in more debt those who can least afford it, like the car title loan.

To learn more about our Life Line Loan, contact Robyn at rwainner@stepupsavannah.org