James Handy, 43, recalls the moment he went from being a homeless single dad trying to meet ends to a financially successful adult.
As he was getting his four kids in his car, he got a phone call inviting him to join a financial literacy program.
“I thought: ‘I don’t have time for jokes right now,’” Handy said. “I was really stressed.”
That was a year ago. But on Wednesday night, Handy was one of 13 bubbly household heads who received medals and graduation certificates after completing a year-long financial literacy program created by Gulf Coast Community Foundation, United Way Suncoast and other community partners.
The Financial Sustainability Initiative is designed to teach people how to budget, build credit, get loans, open bank accounts and file taxes, among other financial activities. Throughout the year, participants attend workshops and meet with volunteer financial coaches.
When he started the program, Handy was a part-time barber living in a one-bedroom apartment with four of his 10 kids. A few months into the program, he got evicted and lived at the Salvation Army for a month.
At the time, he was driving without a license because it was suspended after a DUI and other traffic tickets and he couldn’t pay the fines.
A year later, he’s paid the $5,000 in debt to get his license back. He bought a car — a 2003 Buick LeSabre. He and his children moved into his girlfriend’s house. And with a federal grant, he’s getting ready to go back to school to get a criminal justice degree.
“It was a second chance,” Handy said. “It was a blessing from God.”
The program offered participants a savings matching account with Iberia Bank. If they saved money, the program matched the money up to $500. Ten of 13 participants got a match, averaging $250, said Holly Bullard, the program’s director.
“I couldn’t be happier with how this went,” Bullard said. “When we first started I was just praying people would show up.”
Mike Halliday, a retired IBM engineer, was one of the coaches in the program. He said he’s never been economically deprived, so he got involved to learn about how others deal with that.
“As a professional, you live in an economic cocoon where you don’t know how others make money,” Halliday said. “It was a positive experience. I’m glad I did it.”
This was the first cohort to graduate — 13 of the original 19 participants made it to the end — but the program has two other cohorts going on and a new one starting June 7.
A year ago, 75 percent of the participants in the first cohort had no credit. Now, 85 percent of them have a score. On average, their credit scores increased by 62 points, according to Greg Luberecki, the Gulf Coast Community Foundation spokesman.
Through the program, 27-year-old Hannah Trieber got health care. She started on the Jimmy John’s sandwich line getting $9 per hour and moved up to manager and now gets $10 per hour.
A recovering drug addict, Trieber said she starts a lot of things and has had trouble finishing.
“It’s a big thing to actually finish something,” Trieber said. “I’m really proud of myself. I didn’t think I could.”
She now lives in the Salvation Army’s transitional housing with her daughter Emma, 2. But she after she completes her business management technical degree this fall, she wants to buy a house so that her first child, Hunter, 8, can move in with her.
She also has purchased a 2004 Buick Century.
Although Handy has mostly accomplished all of the goals he set a year ago, he said he’s not finished improving his life.
“I’m almost there, but the journey ain’t over yet,” he said.