BURLINGTON — The Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity offers new Americans the tools to overcome obstacles when assimilating into a new culture, a new language, a new financial system. Through its Financial Empowerment for New Americans Project, more than 350 individuals will not just be given useful tools to navigate through their new and unfamiliar world, but given the tools for a new life.
The initiative has been designed over the course of two years, and is now helping increase the organization’s capacity to host financial-education house parties for Somali women, provide training for community ambassadors, host interpreted classes, develop interpretation and translated material for financial coaching services, and present an annual Financial Wellness Day for New Americans, the second of which took place in September.
“The clients that CVOEO serves are at the heart of all that we do,” said Kate Larose, financial futures program director. “We built this project from the ground up using a human-centered design. We asked ourselves: How might we better empower (new citizens) in Chittenden County? It is an intervention for community involvement — creating the project is what’s so innovative.”
The house parties were designed specifically to reach Somali women. Due, perhaps, to roles within their family sphere and clan structure, this group has had a deficient attendance record at classes previously held by CVOEO.
“The engagement in our previous projects was certainly there, yet our model wasn’t a perfect fit for Somali women. We have learned that Somali women are — were — the hardest to reach to attend classes,” Larose said.
The first house party was held in Burlington on Oct. 4, exceeding expectations by filling to its maximum capacity of six women. The organization plans to conduct series of six parties for groups of six or seven women.
“There are five groups,” said Asma Abunaib, project manager for the New Americans program.
Abunaib is a refugee herself; she is from Sudan, Africa, and came to the U.S. seven years ago for the first time. “I am used to this type of gathering — eating delicious food and enjoying good conversation. The food was presented on a very beautiful, colorful, soft, big mat in the center of the room on the floor. Most of the women there do not know how to write in English. And, since the party was the first party for this group, the first hour was spent helping them fill out paperwork. The second hour was spent talking about the women’s experiences and general information about credit, and why building credit is so important.”
Women participating in the house parties are of all ages and are working together unanimously. Several of the women were either born into refugee camps in Kenya or raised in the camps from early childhood. Therefore, there are both language and cultural barriers to overcome.
“Some of the women fear what they don’t understand. For some, there were no banks in the camp where they lived. Some are even dealing with money for the first time. And, there are cases where a bank account is not wanted because there is a language barrier. Communication gets lost,” Abunaib said.
Abunaib went on to explain that there was one woman participating in the party who did not want to talk about the financial system and the way credit would benefit her life at all.
“By the end of the party, she eventually started to ask questions, she started to hear, she started to listen, and then, she started to learn,” she said.
The first house party was a huge success, helping the women envision and believe that their financial goals can be met while mentoring one another, Abunaib said. The women who attended have committed to all upcoming meetings.
In addition to house parties, the organization’s interpreted classes have been designed based on the needs of the people, with a community ambassador who speaks the language as their first language.
“We are ahead of schedule. We anticipated that training and completion for our ambassadors at the end of next year and we’re almost done for this year,” Larose said.
One of the ambassadors, Gita Dahkal, who was born in Bhutan and lived for a long time in Nepal, said the classes are to educate and help people learn how to get ahead and to communicate their needs. “In order for us to help them, we need their help as well,” Dahkal said.
CVOEO has received support through grants to help get this project off the ground, two of which were received in July: an $18,000 grant from the Vermont Community Foundation’s Innovations and Collaborations grant program; and an $80,000 Jane’s Trust Grant. The total cost for this project was not released.
The project has partnered with the Burlington School District’s Parent University, the Vermont Family Network, the Islamic Society of Vermont and the city of Winooski.
CVOEO is a nonprofit organization formed in 1965 to carry out the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 in Addison, Chittenden, Franklin and Grand Isle counties. It is one of five Community Action Agencies in Vermont and provides services to more than 10,000 households and 23,000 individuals every year.