Financial Workshops from NCUF Grantee Helping Karen Refugees in South Dakota

A Foundation Grant at Work

A NCUF Innovation Grant at Work

Due to a combination of tailored financial management workshops and individual counseling sessions, Dakotaland FCU in Huron, S.D. is making a difference with their surrounding Karen population. Many of these new residents have limited ability to speak and understand English and now have a better knowledge of financial management and home ownership concepts. One Karen refugee is now on staff at the credit union and helps Dakotaland FCU better cater to the population.

In 2009, Dakotaland Federal Credit Union partnered with Lutheran Social Services of South Dakota to provide financial management classes targeted to the Karen refugee community, with translated materials and an interpreter. Dakotaland FCU expanded these workshops last year thanks to a grant from the National Credit Union Foundation (NCUF).

“This is a great example of a credit union helping members of the community reach financial independence,” said Tom Candell, NCUF Deputy Executive Director, COO/CFO.

A Community in Need
The city of Huron, South Dakota (population 12,000) has recently experienced a large growth in the number of residents who are immigrants and refugees, tripling the city's immigrant population in a short time period. Many Karen refugees come from refugee camps or impoverished areas where money is scarce and banks are unheard of. Without knowledge of basic financial management concepts, people can easily lose their hard-earned wages to predatory lenders and high-cost check cashing services. Dakotaland FCU’s workshops cater to those residents who are eager to learn how they could improve their families' financial stability in their new community.

“For those who may not be familiar with the Karen, they are political refugees from Burma who had to flee their homeland because of governmental unrest in Burma,” said Dawn Mutchelknaus, VP of Marketing at Dakotaland FCU. “Most fled to Thailand and some have been able to come to the United States as political refugees to make their home. The Huron community as a whole has strived to assist our immigrant population in transitioning to their new home.”

Dakotaland FCU Makes a Difference
Thanks to six classes in 2010, almost two hundred Karen speaking people attended classes in their language. Classes dealt with basic financial management, checking and savings accounts, home ownership concepts, and credit cards and borrowing. They also learned how to further increase their ability to manage a budget, save for future expenses and develop a positive credit history.

Most notably, every workshop participant met individually with a credit counselor. Some of the needs that were addressed in these individual sessions we’re assisting eligible families in establishing a budget, buying Governor’s homes in the community. Several families have been approved for USDA Rural Housing loans, and several have been approved or are in the process of looking into being approved for a local estate loan with Dakotaland FCU.

Dakotaland FCU has opened between 275 to 300 new accounts with the Karen population, and more are coming each week. These accounts have at least a savings account, direct deposit and an ATM card, with the majority of the accounts having checking, VISA credit card, and debit card services. Dakotaland FCU has sent staff, including one staff member (Sah Lay Lay Wah) that they hired in fall 2010 who speaks Karen, Burmese, and English, to the primary employer of the immigrant population in the community to better meet their needs.

Source: Dakotaland FCU

Sah Lay Lay Wah (at right) and her family.

A Karen Refugee Joins the CU Staff – Her Story
Sah Lay Lay Wah was born in Thailand to Karen parents in a camp called Hway K' lot, which housed thousands of refugees from Burma. Her father was a soldier stationed at Kaw Moo Ra near the front lines and her mother worked in a hospital spending much of her time educating other Karen about maintaining healthy families and homes under not so sanitary conditions. Wah and her siblings learned to live and grow within the safer confinements of the refugee camp. The children grew up knowing that leaving the camp meant taking the chance of being captured by the Thailand soldiers and put in jailor worse in the case of those raped and murdered.

At the age of 14, Wah and her family moved to a second refugee camp (Mae La). They moved because her home in Hway K'lot was burned by the SPDC, made up of Burmese Soldiers and the DKBA (Democratic Karen Buddhist Army). The camp and homes were first burned and then later the soldiers returned to shoot those that remained at the camp.

As a child and young adult, Wah was able to attend school completing classes comparable to our high school level curriculum. Wah chose to continue her education in the Further Study Program offered at the camp by the government that taught her English and additional course work in social studies, science, mathematics and reading and writing. She also speaks and translates three languages.

At the age of23, Wah left her home for the first time, as well as the confines of the refugee camp and began her trek to the United States. Wah's husband, Blue, heard there was work and a place to raise his family in a town called Huron in South Dakota. Wah admitted that she was worried about being able to leave the house and walk around by herself, but she doesn't have that concern here. "I feel safe in Huron," she commented.

Since arriving in Huron, Blue Wah has secured employment with Dakota Provisions and Wah has joined the staff at Dakotaland FCU. She translates and interprets for many of her fellow Karen residents who have opened accounts, purchased cars or bought homes through the credit union. Wah and her husband have recently been approved to buy their first home. "I am excited for my family to own a house since we were not able to own property when we lived in Thailand," stated Wah.
“With 100 years passed and the homesteads of our ancestors standing proud as a reminder, we can rest assured the American dream does live on ....especially here in Huron, South Dakota,” noted Mutchelknaus.

A Foundation Grant at Work
NCUF Grants are made possible by supporters of the Foundation and the Community Investment Fund (CIF), an award-winning system of investments that help credit unions earn dividends while donating to national and state community development programs.

This “Grant at Work” is part of a series highlighting NCUF grantees making a positive impact in their community and empowering consumers to achieve financial independence through credit unions. Click here to see more grant highlights.