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Debt Counselors At Co-opportunity Inc. See Many Who Need Training On Setting A Budget

By Susan Campbell

July 12, 2011

His whole life, Hartford-bred Ricardo Herrera, director of programs at Co-opportunity, Inc., has lived with the ups and downs that are Connecticut's capital city.

This town is, Herrera said, perpetually on the cusp of something better. And then something else happens and Hartford slips back down a few rungs.

Co-opportunity's clients, too, dance one step forward, two steps back financially. Some of the steps come from unforeseeable financial setbacks. Some stem from a reluctance to talk or think about money other than to bemoan its lack.

Herrera is a success story. He's mentored countless children through his other work in the city. He and his wife are shepherding two daughters through the shoals of girlhood. Growing up, there were ample opportunities to do something stupid, except Herrera had serious parents who insisted he succeed.

But no one talked about money.

"Finances were something very personal," Herrera said. "It didn't leave the house. You could grow up and not know what your uncle did for a living. It just wasn't important."

If that's a charming way to keep things in the family, it can play havoc when trying to get ahead financially. If you hit the skids, you do so without benefit of useful advice, said Herrera.

While Washington politicians debate the federal borrowing limit, volunteer Co-opportunity budget coaches focus on the small scale. Families, who, like Hartford, are on the cusp, team up in a one-on-one relationship with volunteer money managers who help them budget and pay bills. If clients start to slide, Co-opportunity has what Herrera calls "deeper services." The budget coaches don't work with worse-case scenarios Herrera says coaches are not social workers trained to help people with substance issues and the like, but they can help people manage their finances.

And it all starts with a budget.

"No matter where we are on the spectrum, we all have some type of economic issue," said Herrera. "How many of us create a budget?"

The organization's budget counseling service works in Hartford, Bridgeport, and the Windham area, and another program is starting up in Norwalk. All told, the organization matches 250 wage earners with 250 budget counselors, Herrera said. Even before the financial meltdown, the program was expanding. A recent grant allows counselors to follow their clients for a year, as opposed to the original six-month time span. In the fall, they're planning a family program at Burr Elementary School.

Meanwhile, economists say our economic recovery is glacial. That's true in Connecticut. Recently, while organizing the program in Norwalk, Co-opportunity employees walked into financial offices looking for counselors, and found people who wanted to be clients, instead, Herrera said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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