True to its name, Community First Credit Union is an advocate for the communities of Fox Valley. As a community-chartered credit union, Community First serves more than 80,000 members in 12 counties in northeastern and central Wisconsin. It is dedicated to promoting wellness in the communities it serves, from financial to physical and everything in between.
“There is a much broader social mission that we subscribe to as Community First Credit Union,” says Catherine Tierney, president and chief executive officer of CFCU. Our members have the expectation that we’re not only here to serve their needs but to serve their broader needs – the ones that exist aside from their finances. Everybody enjoys living and working in a place that is safe, that provides opportunities be they educational, be they through the arts, or even just helping those who need a helping hand, and we’ve been able to become that. We do all of those things for and on behalf of the members of Community First.”
Community First, which budgets $6 per member per year for community service, makes the communities it serves a better place to live through a variety of initiatives, not all of which are focused on finances. One of its major annual events is the Community First Fox Cities Marathon, which is taking place this year on September 19. The credit union has sponsored the event since its inception in 1990, and the race, now dubbed Community First Fox Cities Marathon – Festival of Races, includes activities for people of all ages and agility.
There’s a marathon, a half marathon, a relay marathon, a kids’ run, a 5K run/walk, and a fitness expo. The marathon course passes through all seven Fox Cities communities and draws more than 6,000 participants, requiring more than 2,300 volunteers. For this year’s 20th annual marathon, the credit union is trying to recruit runners from all 50 states. At press, registered runners represented 36 states: Alaska, Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, North Dakota, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
The event is a qualifier for the Boston Marathon, but better yet, it promotes health and wellness and brings together runners, volunteers, and well-wishers from throughout the area.
“It’s a real important initiative in our community that promotes wellness,” says Rick Sense senior vice president of government and community relations. “Tens of thousands of people get together and cheer on
their fellow neighbors and friends as they run the 26.2 mile course.”
“But in addition to promoting physical wellness,” Sense continues, “we are also actively supporting financial wellness and financial literacy.”
In 2001, the credit union opened its first student-run branch in Appleton West High School. It now has branches in Appleton North High School, Appleton East High School, and Oshkosh West High School as well as a branch for the younger students of Jefferson Elementary School.
“It’s energizing to work with kindergartners through sixth graders,” Tierney says. “Their hunger and thirst for knowledge and their passion to be involved is exciting. It has brought a lot of new life to the program.”
The students run the branches – even in the elementary branch – and last year the credit union had almost 40 kids “working” in the in-school branches. More than 30% of the population in Jefferson participated in its in-school branch.
“Now we’re looking at middle schools so we have the whole continuum,” Tierney says. “One of the great things about working with the elementary school kids is we have the chance to work with parents a little bit through the auspices of financial literacy and impart some information that can be helpful to parents at their stage in life.”
As part of the Wisconsin Financial Literacy Task Force, Tierney, who was appointed by the governor, helped create a financial literacy curriculum for schools in the state of Wisconsin. The initiative helped put Wisconsin on the map in terms of an overall effort to promote financial literacy, Tierney says. The Appleton School Board has even incorporated a semester’s personal finance management course into the system’s graduation requirements.
In addition to the in-school branches, Community First sponsors a budget simulation program twice a year at area high schools. Through Realty Check, students must budget for a month of expenses, taking into considerations variables such as occupation, income, taxes, renting versus owning a home, insurance, transportation, food, clothing, and daycare or other familial expenses. The students get to choose what occupation they’d like (and must budget for corresponding student loans) and the school throws in life circumstances, such as marital status, number of children (if any), and whether the student can plan on a dual-income budget.
Based on these factors, students work their way around tables, make financial choices such as do they want to budget for a cell phone or cable (and what kind of plan for each), and use a checkbook to document budgetary decisions. Students are even offered the chance to make philanthropic choices such as contributing to a non profit. A Wheel of Life throws in a bit of uncertainty, with $125 washing machine repair bills and $500 rummage sale credits. Many community leaders, business owners, and service representatives staff booths and lend their expertise.
“It’s an amazing half-day experience for them [the students],” Tierney says. “They learn the reality of what it’s like to have to balance a budget.”
In addition to the opportunities through the schools, the credit union also supports an initiative called Money Smart Week Wisconsin.
“I’ve had the privilege to chair that committee the past three years here in the Fox Cities,” Sense says. “We put together educational opportunities that are not focused on selling products but on selling the idea to people that it’s important to understand how money works.”
The public awareness initiative began in 2006 and is geared toward people of all ages. It uses speakers, programs, workshops, and other interactive events to teach people how to use money more wisely, more confidently, and more shrewdly.
“It’s hard to make mistakes and sometimes recover from them,” Tierney says. “If we can help people prevent them, that’s a wonderful thing.”