Portland-based financial literacy program for immigrants expands its reach

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PORTLAND — An organization founded 10 years ago to help immigrants and refugees build successful careers and businesses and create financial stability has a new name and an expanded mission.

Community Financial Literacy has re-branded itself as ProsperityME. With a $75,000 matching grant, the group now hopes to provide college scholarships, as well as continue to meet the needs of southern Maine’s immigrant community.

“The new name reflects the broader scope of services that the organization provides to immigrants, refugees and asylees,” the organization said in a press release.

Changing the name also “more accurately reflects our mission and vision for immigrants, refugees and others to not only achieve financial stability, but to prosper in their new home by building wealth … and other assets,” said Mara O’Shea, ProsperityME’s office manager.

The nonprofit originally provided financial literacy courses, one-on-one financial counseling and coaching. It later added support for higher education, career development, matching savings program and job skills training.

Today its services have further expanded to include a scholarship fund for asylum-seekers and loans for secure housing and small business start-up support and development. The service area has also expanded beyond Portland to include Lewiston and Auburn, and will soon extend into York County.

“Ten years ago I had a vision that all of Maine’s immigrants and refugees … could reach financial stability and improve their quality of life,” said Claude Rwaganje, executive director of ProsperityME. “The vision was great, but its mission, to teach financial literacy, was (too) narrow.

“I came to realize that financial literacy alone was not sufficient to help people and families become more prosperous. Over time we built the robust curriculum and service offerings now under our umbrella.”

O’Shea said the college scholarship fund is particularly important because asylees and asylum-seekers are not eligible for any federal or state financial aid.

Providing an education also “prepares these young adults, who are here due to difficult and dangerous circumstances in their original home country, for the workforce and provides not only an opportunity to build a better quality of life, but also helps Maine address a gap in the state’s aging workforce,” she said.

O’Shea said Rwaganje felt the need to create ProsperityME after learning that many refugees and immigrants knew nothing about basic money management practices, including saving, investments, retirement or saving for their children’s education.

“Most participants were (also) unaware of the importance of a personal emergency fund and few knew the importance of a credit report,” she said. “A lack of understanding concerning U.S. financial institutions and money management was identified as the primary barrier to economic stability and growth.”

The bottom line, Rwaganje said, is that “at ProsperityME, we make a difference in people’s lives. Bank accounts, establishing credit, retirement accounts and other banking concepts are not familiar to many new arrivals. (And) financial education is the pathway to economic stability.”

He also said providing “financial education protects new Americans from predatory lending and other scams and helps move them from government assistance to economic independence.”

“ProsperityME was created out of a need within the immigrant community to address the challenges that were unique to this population,” Rwaganje said. 

One of his favorite success stories is about an asylum-seeker from Angola who had recently given birth. She did not have medical insurance and so owed the hospital over $17,000.

But after working with a ProsperityME counselor, the woman was able to get the hospital to reduce her bill to $4,000 and she also agreed to take on a repayment plan.

Ever since then, she’s been making regular payments and now has just a few months left to pay off her account. According to Rwaganje, the woman “credits ProsperityME for educating her and advising her about managing her debt.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

ProsperityME helps immigrants and refugees understand the financial systems in the U.S., which is key to their quality of life and ability to become economically independent, says Claude Rwaganje, executive director.

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