Regions Bank is now offering free financial counseling in north St. Louis County through a partnership with a national non-profit called Operation Hope.
Operation Hope counselor Bonita Williams says it will help anyone who asks improve their credit score, become more financially stable and work towards goals like buying a home or starting a business—no strings attached.
Williams said one of her main goals is to help people reach a 700 credit score.
“A person who does not have a 700 score because they don’t have the financial literacy in terms of knowing how to have good credit or just don’t have credit, when they apply for a car they get the higher rate,” Williams said. “Sometimes it affects where they live … sometimes a job: the employers look at the credit score. So 700 seems to be the targeted score for communities to prosper and have financial dignity.”
Williams has worked as a loan officer in north St. Louis County for 10 years, the last three with Regions Bank. She still works out of a Regions Bank branch, but now Operation Hope pays her salary and she works with the general public, not just prospective Regions customers.
“Growing up in an underserved community myself, I always had a passion and a love for seeing people being their best and succeed,” said Williams, adding that she has long wanted to help people understand money and become more financially independent.
The partnership between the bank and Operation Hope will be formally announced Monday at the Regions Bank branch in Jennings where Williams is based on Fridays. In addition to providing office space, Regions is giving Operation Hope the funding to operate in north St. Louis County.
Operation Hope has free financial counselors set up in banks throughout the country, but this partnership with Regions Bank is its first in St. Louis.
Regions Bank Midwest area president Mike Hart said the partnership is part of the bank’s commitment to serving the people of north St. Louis County.
“What we want to do is make people more able to take control of their financial future,” said Hart. “We recognize as a company that our bank is only going to be as healthy as the community we serve. And we recognize a number of the communities we’re in face challenges. Some of those challenges include a lack of access to financial education.”
According to Hart, this service differs from the normal financial advice you’d get from a bank because “we’re not selling any products. It’s a totally free service. You don’t have to be a Regions customer to use it. An Operation Hope counselor is in our branch to serve the community.”
Although this is the first Operation Hope location in St. Louis, there are other services available for St. Louisans wanting financial help.
Local non-profit Beyond Housing offers credit counseling for people wanting to buy a home or avoid foreclosure. Justine Petersen also helps people without a lot of money become homeowners, and offers help building credit and micro-loans for small businesses.
Several area banks, including Regions Bank, are part of an effort to sign more St. Louisans up for bank accounts called STL Unbanked. About 10 percent of St. Louisans don’t have a bank account, making it more difficult for them to pay bills and forcing them to spend part of their income cashing their checks. It’s a problem that disproportionately affects African Americans.
And Bank of America has partnered with Khan Academy to offer free financial literacy videos called Better Money Habits.
The Vision of Operation Hope in St. Louis
Operation Hope founder John Hope Bryant is on a mission to end the cycle of poverty in America, and he wants to expand his nonprofit’s reach in St. Louis to make that happen. Bryant is an adviser to President Obama.
“My goal is to saturate that area with (Operation Hope) offices (inside bank branches),” Bryant said, adding that he also wants to implement middle school and high school programs.
Bryant is currently working with St. Louis Treasurer Tishaura Jones to hammer out a partnership, and he has other projects in the works that he said aren’t ready to be announced.
“We’re going to convert renters into homeowners. We’re going to convert small-business dreamers into small-business owners and entrepreneurs. We’re going to convert check-cashers into credit unions and banks simply through market forces over two to three, four, five years by raising credit scores and destroying the customer base for check cashers by stealing their customer from them in plain sight legally,” said Bryant. “And the city gets taxpayers and voters because when you have a stake in something you tend to care about it and you want to participate in it. It’ll stabilize Ferguson, Mo. It will stabilize the cities and the counties in that region and it will create a baseline for economic growth.”
Bryant said that he founded Operation Hope to work in poor neighborhoods because too often families that have lived in poverty for generations don’t know how to make the country’s financial system work in their favor. Bryant said that is even more often the case for poor African-Americans.
“All of the good things that we enjoy today came at its root from free enterprise being made available to people and capitalism—the use of capital to maximize the opportunity for your private benefit as a way to catalyze that opportunity to build wealth and hopefully to give back,” explained Bryant. ““The real problem is that people of color never got the memo on free enterprise and capitalism.”
Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.