Career shift to giving working poor financial know-how

CHICAGO Fri Dec 14, 2012 9:02am EST

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CHICAGO (Reuters) - On September 11, 2001, Lorraine Decker had it made. She and her husband Ken had a lucrative Houston financial planning practice specializing in retirement seminars all over the world for corporate employees. That day, they were waiting for a flight to New Orleans at the Newark airport when the first plane hit the twin towers in New York City.

With all air traffic grounded, the Deckers managed to rent a car to drive home to Houston. "We had the time to slow down and reflect on our priorities and the future of the nation, and we were feeling a profound need to help recreate the future," she recalls.

That feeling took Decker on a decade-long journey, ultimately transforming her work from advising the affluent to running a non-profit organization focused on helping working poor households boost their income and improve their money management skills.

Lorraine Decker's work was recognized this month with a Purpose Prize -- the $100,000 award given annually by Encore.org to recognize outstanding social entrepreneurship and innovation -- the Oscars for career innovation over age 60.

This year's other Purpose Prize winners include a pro-bono lawyer who teaches other lawyers how to protect homeowners from unfair mortgage lending practices; a former toy store owner who has created innovative ways for people to help Massachusetts children in foster care; a former prison inmate who opened her home to women recently released from jail and now leads five transitional residences in Los Angeles; and an engineer who helps villagers in India collect and store rain for safe drinking water. Decker's post 9/11 journey began when she started providing free classes on financial education and planning to public school teachers and medical students facing significant student loan debt. At the same time, Decker kept up the couple's lucrative corporate practice.

The classes with teachers and medical students led to work with Habitat for Humanity, which asked them in 2003 to provide help to homeowners trying to avoid foreclosure.

Working with those families, Decker saw that the need extended far beyond housing.

"The immediate problem might be foreclosure, but what we saw was that people just weren't making enough. Foreclosure was a symptom of the real problem, which is that too many people don't make a living wage. We wanted to help people increase their income, and learn how to save and do a better job managing their money."

In 2004, at age 56, Decker started Skills For Living, a Houston non-profit that provides free financial, career and college-planning workshops to low and moderate-income adults and at-risk students. It has helped more than 1,000 high school students, 1,500 adults and 556 families. Skills For Living runs two financial education programs for adults.

"My husband and I could have retired," Decker says. "But once we saw results with Skills For Living, we knew we were making a difference. We had to keep going."

Decker created a " Game of Real Life," a 120-hour course over three weeks for economically disadvantaged and at-risk teens on financial education, career discovery and college planning. Nearly 100 percent of students who finish the curriculum go to college.

The game also includes retirement planning. "When kids play the game, their first decision when picking where they want to work is to calculate their FICA taxes, group insurance and 401 (k) contributions. As they age, they continue to fund the 401(k), they make decisions about investments and consult with other students who play the role of financial advisers to learn about diversification."

Hundreds of volunteers participate as interviewers, trainers, guest speakers, career mentors and instructors.

A big part of the help that Decker offers is career advancement in minimum wage-paying jobs where that is often difficult.

"People want to think if they do a good job they will be recognized and promoted, but unfortunately that doesn't happen very often. So we are using what we learned working in corporate America and transferring that to hard-working people who are struggling to get by."

Her main focus with clients is financial sustainability. "Many of the people we work with are putting in sixty-hour weeks in two jobs. That means they sacrifice time with their families, so we try to look at what their skill sets are, and what they are passionate about. What is the intrinsic value you bring to the table for an employer that is different from 10 other people who have your job?"

The goal is a 20 percent increase in the first year in clients' income and net worth. The latter often occurs as a result of helping families restructure or repay debt. "We try to move people away from predatory lenders like payday loans. The goal is to help people set up checking and savings accounts, and establish relationships with banks."

Decker plans to use the Purpose Prize money to expand the real life planning game to Houston middle schools, and to other cities.

"We want to be sure students are graduating high school ready, and that they are aiming high for their careers. "Being a cosmetologist may be nice, but being an engineer might be better."

(The writer is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. For more from Mark Miller, see link.reuters.com/qyk97s)

(Editing by Heather Struck and Andrew Hay)

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