Christendom College

Lifting People Out of Poverty in Portland

August 14, 2017

This story appears in the Spring 2017 edition of InstaurareSubscribe today!

It can be said that many people don’t know what to do with their finances. If this were not the case, there would not be a whole aisle at bookstores dedicated to financial planning, and people such as Dave Ramsey would not have such a “cult following.” For many people, not knowing how to plan financially can send them spiraling into debt, and can keep them from realizing their dreams.

Basic financial skills are generally not taught in high school, and rarely in college. This has led to such staggering statistics as 57% of Americans not being able to handle a $500 emergency without using a credit card or borrowing from family or friends; and a generation of “baby boomers” who are not prepared for a secure retirement. This significant, global problem was one that alumna Molly O’Donnell encountered in Portland, Ore., in her work at Catholic Charities. A 1985 Christendom College graduate with a major in history, Molly joined Catholic Charities Oregon in 2009 after raising her four sons and holding a variety of jobs in nonprofit development.

O’Donnell (’85) works at Catholic Charities in Portland, Oregon.

Molly was hired to administer a cash-assistance program for employees of Providence Health & Services who were in emergency need. While the program had noble intentions, Molly quickly saw that the assistance did not empower clients to make a change in their financial lives but, rather, was more like a band-aid approach, helping people out of the immediate emergency, but not providing tools to ensure that crisis didn’t follow upon crisis.

“We quickly learned that poverty exists on many levels and that it really didn’t matter how much money one made but, rather, their understanding of basic money management skills. If a person is making poor decisions with money, it only takes one life event like an illness, loss of a job, divorce, or death in the family to live in perpetual crisis or be spiraled into crisis,” she said.

After a few months of fund administration, Molly recommended to the oversight committee and the Board of Catholic Charities that they combine financial literacy education and personal financial coaching with the emergency assistance.

“Our hope was to truly move people out of poverty and up the economic ladder, thus fulfilling our mission of lasting solutions to poverty. By providing these tools, we were providing hope that there is another way to live. I saw, and continue to see, this as an extension of the mission that became ingrained in me during my years at Christendom–to be that light of Christ’s hope in the world.”

As the Director of this new initiative for Catholic Charities Oregon, Molly set about preparing to build the strongest office possible by doing what many others do: learning the principles of financial planning herself. While Molly had a strong financial foundation, she wanted to know more about the science of financial planning, in order to better teach it to others. To this end, she turned to Dave Ramsey, one of America’s leading financial planning experts, and traveled to Nashville, Tennessee, to learn from him and to take his “Financial Peace University” course. She quickly found that her background in development and the critical thinking skills she learned at Christendom gave her an edge in learning the secrets to financial planning. Armed with this new financial knowledge and the heart of a teacher, Molly returned to Oregon confident that she and her team could help change people’s lives for the better, one person at a time.

As the director of financial planning for Catholic Charities Oregon, Molly designed, implemented, and managed the financial literacy program. Through her efforts, approximately 400 people a year have been served since 2010.

Molly quickly got to work designing, implementing, and managing the financial literacy program for Catholic Charities Oregon. Through her efforts, approximately 400 people a year have been served since 2010. Those who come to class and participate in financial coaching range from the truly impoverished to local community members, as well as employees at Catholic Charities and other organizations. All of them are learning how to properly manage their finances and get their lives on track to a brighter financial future. Molly is also working within local Catholic parishes to help those who are preparing for marriage and those who are seeking financial assistance from the pastors.

Over the course of seven years, the office of Financial Wellness Services has successfully empowered people to achieve and maintain a healthy financial perspective and lifestyle. Starting this year, Molly is now directing these services from the Family Success Center, a centralized location where clients who reach out to Catholic Charities for help, whether for crisis pregnancy support, refugee resettlement, or housing assistance, are given the financial education they need to grow in financial capability, increase their savings accounts, and realize their dreams for the future.

Through the office and Molly’s efforts to help the lives of others, Catholic Charities Oregon is now looked to as an innovator in financial education, and is held up as a “shining star” by the rest of Catholic Charities, according to Jane Stenson, senior director for poverty reduction strategies for Catholic Charities USA.

Through the office and O’Donnell’s efforts to help the lives of others, Catholic Charities Oregon is now looked to as an innovator in financial education.

Molly is realizing her own dream through the incredible success of the program—the dream to help others become confident in their lives and realize their own dreams for the future. All of this comes from an incredible giving spirit, and an authentic desire to “feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and welcome the stranger.”

“My education at Christendom taught me how to think and how to put that thought into action. I have always had the desire to help others and through my work at Catholic Charities, I have been able to fulfill that desire, and the mission that was formed in me during my years at Christendom, that one person can make a difference and that we were to go out into the world and be that light of Christ,” she said.

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