Tuesday, September 25, 2018

In it for the long haul and innovating in Eastern Kentucky

Owsley County, Kentucky (red outline) is in the midst of a large
region afflicted by persistent poverty, (Source: Urban Institute)
Last December, Owsley County, Ky. mayor Cale Turner told the Lexington Herald-Leader’s Bill Estep “there’s not enough jobs, definitely not.” Estep was interviewing Turner for a story highlighting the fact that nine of the country’s 30 poorest counties are in Eastern Kentucky. Owsley County ranked as the country’s third-poorest. The county’s unemployment rate is more than double Kentucky’s rate.

Owsley County native Lisa Botner, a Community Development Program Specialist for Appalachian Community Federal Credit Union, agrees with the jobs assessment. “The people that live around here that are doing well have kind of absorbed all those better-paying jobs in the area, or they’re leaving out every Sunday night and not coming home until Thursday,” says Botner. Others drive a couple of hours each way to Richmond or Lexington, or nearly two hours to the Toyota plant in Georgetown.

Lisa Botner and ACFCU's virtual teller machine, which
can perform most banking functions remotely.
Into this challenging situation ACFCU deployed Botner to join efforts at breaking a generational cycle of poverty. She joins other business leaders, educators and officials who, as the Herald-Leader’s Estep put it “work to diversify the economy and counteract the downturn.”

For its part, ACFCU – a Community Development Financial Institution – installed a “virtual teller machine” funded in part by a 2016 grant from the Opportunity Finance Network grant. ACFCU added Botner and the VTM in 2017, hoping as a mission-driven credit union it could play an important role in a community with just a couple of banks and a heavy reliance on predatory lenders.

 Previously, Botner spent several years conducting family engagement activities with Partners for Education, a non-profit affiliated with Berea College (learn about PFE and ACFCU’s collaboration here). Now her role – not a typical position for a financial institution – illustrates ACFCU’s heavy commitment to Owsley County.

That commitment extends to financial coaching, combined with fair lending products, designed to help members stair step their way to greater financial health and stability, regardless of income.

Owsley County, Kentucky's unemployment woes are well-documented.
Yet the journey hasn’t been easy. “It’s been hard getting through to people that there’s something different,” she says. “They now have an option for financial services that they’ve never had, but it’s actually a struggle earning trust.

“At first people were confusing us with payday lenders. Getting people to understand we don’t just hand out money and charge you horribly high interest rates has been a challenge.”

“It’s the same challenges I envisioned we were going to have,” Botner says. “But word’s getting out, people are figuring out what we’re really about and we’re actually starting to earn people’s trust a bit.”

JoAnne Richardson was an early adopter of the
credit union's services in Owsley County.
In addition to working with adults, Botner is focusing heavily on Owsley County High School, where she hopes financial literacy courses and relationships with high school seniors can help yield a break in the generational cycle of poverty.

“We’re trying to show these kids the real world doesn’t have to be struggling with drug addiction or seeing how quickly you can get on disability,” she says. “It can be, ‘go to school, get a job and budget your money.’ That’s my mindset and what I’m putting quite a bit of focus on.”

Botner is also reaching out to those who are slowly finding work within the county, including with Teleworks, a work from home customer service company that’s hired about 100 Owsley Countians.

ACFCU is working to establish trust in the community.
“Teleworks is definitely helping and people are getting jobs. You can tell by the traffic in town (Booneville, the county seat) – some days are busier than you’ve ever seen it. They may not pay great, but a job’s a job and people need to make a living.”

It all leaves Botner wondering whether she’s coming or going sometimes. “I’m tryin’,” she says. “Sometimes I feel like a hamster in a wheel. But I know we’re the good guys and it’s worth the effort.”

(Jeff Keeling is vice president of communications and community relations for Appalachian Community Federal Credit Union.)

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