By Jaime Craven
The optimism of the Bedford Life Management Skills group members is reflected in this quote:
“I get up every single day at four in the morning, and I’m so happy, because I’m doing that for my kids… Sometimes they tell me, ‘Mummy, we cannot do that, we don’t have the money.’ And I tell them, ‘No. We’ll do that. We work every single day to do that.'”
— Irene Despradel
With the first week of September creeping ever closer, the Bedford Life Management Skills program met in the First Parish Church on August 19 to discuss tips and strategies for saving money during back-to-school season.
This pilot program went into effect in early 2015 and has since formed a close-knit circle of local, lower-income families looking to maximize their finances and plan for the future. Come December, the Town will vote on whether to re-fund the program for another year.
The program began with a partnership between the Bedford Housing Authority and the Community Teamwork group in Lowell, and now includes twelve participating families. Seven stopped by the meeting, setting their children loose in an adjacent playroom while the parents – mostly mothers –conducted their own lively discussion. Judging by the level of energy in each room, the only difference between the two groups was the number of bullet points on the whiteboard.
According to JoAnne Howell of Community Teamwork, this “very intensive” program is not counseling, but rather human services; they provide resources for families to make their own plans and decisions. For example, the program workers do the members’ taxes for them at no charge, allowing them to save their money for other things, such as buying a house. Client Service Coordinator Meg Gaffney is also available on Tuesdays and Thursdays for one-on-one sessions in the Bedford Public Library, where she dispenses extra advice in between meetings.
Howell herself apparently could not overstate her passion for this program. “They put their lives on the table,” she said, talking a mile a minute. “The big issue is motivation. You have to make them feel like they can really do this.”
While the meeting’s main focus was the back-to-school presentation by Gail Fortes, easily half of the evening was spent celebrating the members’ various accomplishments since the last meetup. Five people had found employment, and two had recently graduated from Middlesex Community College.
Sacha Rodriguez –a single mother, full-time worker, and recent college graduate whom Howell described as “our big success story” – shared her plans to buy a new home for her family. Ameenah Jamal, aspiring travel and tourism entrepreneur, now works for the luxury travel club Aspire. Sara Baker received a glowing recommendation from her professors at phlebotomy school; “I know it’s awkward, but I love needles—” she started. She paused as the room erupted in laughter. “I love sticking people with needles,” she went on, grinning. “It’s fun.”
Fortes’ presentation emphasized the importance of planning ahead – for example, timing one’s purchases so that sales and coupons overlap. This not only minimizes the cost of necessary goods such as winter clothing, but also teaches one’s children good habits for themselves. “If you’re gonna spend a lot of money on something, make sure it’s damn well worth it,” said Fortes. “Like a vacation!” She shot two finger guns at Jamal, who laughed.
Back-to-school and the holidays are often the most expensive and stressful times of the year. But Howell and her coworkers, true to their word, put motivation at the front and center of the discussion. “The reality is, just because we’re low-income, doesn’t mean our children can’t have nice sneakers or new clothes,” said Howell. “We want them to feel good walking to school.”