Despite improvements in the national economy, 44% of New Mexico’s households are still in a persistent state of financial insecurity, which means that if faced with an emergency, they lack adequate savings to cover basic expenses for three months. Prosperity Now, a public policy organization in Washington, D.C., ranks New Mexico 50th in income poverty and 43rd in the number of unbanked households.
A strong financial education, however, has been shown to have a positive effect on the economic well-being of individuals and their families; it also predicts future healthy behaviors around savings.
With this in mind, the Nusenda Foundation last summer launched its Financial Education Innovator recognition program, which aims to showcase those in the community who are dedicated to increasing economic mobility and stability for their fellow New Mexicans.
Alex Luce, director of Mandy’s Farm VAMOS (Vocational Access and Meaningful Opportunities for Success) Program in Albuquerque’s South Valley has been named the program’s inaugural awardee. Mandy’s Farm, a nonprofit, provides residential services as well as educational and therapeutic services to assist in independent living and community involvement.
After high school, individuals with developmental disabilities in New Mexico often have to wait 10 to 15 years before they are allocated disability support through the state Developmental Disabilities (DD) Medicaid waiver. Many are left without in-home caregiving, community access, or employment services for years at a time. This results in parents often leaving the workforce to act as full-time, unpaid caregivers, as well as individuals with disabilities remaining unemployed.
Mandy’s Farm received an AmeriCorps grant to plan the VAMOS program in 2017; its pilot cohort, funded by the state Department of Vocational Rehabilitation and other privately funded grants, began last June. Since then, two more groups have been organized under AmeriCorps, which also provides members to lead the program. Participants and their families, at no cost, receive an 8-week session that provides:
- Assistance in navigating government benefits.
- A full vocational assessment.
- Support for family members in their roles as full-time caregivers.
- Career exploration and training, which aids in obtaining successful workplace skills.
- Additional support needed to gain successful employment in the community at minimum wage or higher, such as resume development, soft skills training, and job site and post-secondary institution tours.
- A paid, 35-hour internship with area businesses and organizations.
Nusenda Credit Union staff also provide financial literacy education to VAMOS participants, helping them become more financially stable and independent, which allows family members and caregivers to return to work, Luce said.
“VAMOS was born from a clear community need. As an organization, Mandy's Farm serves many adults whose services are funded through the Medicaid waiver, which allows them to access most of our programming at no cost,” Luce explained. “However, families who can't access this program, or who are on the waiting list are often unable to access the full range of supports other clients have, like case management, therapies, and in-home respite care.
“We were interacting with hundreds of families each year who were isolated, in need of training and support, and didn't have a lot of hope for the future,” she added. “We created VAMOS as a way to reach these individuals and their families and meet their most urgent needs. We want to give them the skills and resources that will make the greatest impact on their lives.”
Mariah Lujan completed the VAMOS program last summer. After seeing her own growth during the program, she applied for – and received – a paid opportunity with VAMOS as an AmeriCorps employment specialist, putting her education into practice and teaching it to her peers.
Raquel Earnest, Mariah’s mother, said the program helped her daughter and other participants to advocate for themselves in real-life situations, and in becoming more mature and self-sufficient.
“As a parent of a child with an intellectual disability I worry that someone may take advantage of her and I become a mama bear,” Earnest said. “But that’s not always the best method. The (VAMOS) program has not only helped my daughter, but it has also helped me to become a stronger parent.
“It has taught us to never let a disability be a barrier, or to let it stop us from having a happy life. It has given (Mariah) the strength, courage, and confidence that she needed.”
“The intention of this recognition program was to showcase those in the community who are dedicated to increasing economic mobility for their fellow New Mexicans, and are carrying out innovative education strategies that improve financial well-being in their communities,” said Robin Brulé, Executive Director of the Nusenda Foundation. “After reviewing the dozens of award submissions we received, Alex’s work stood out because it meets a need that many don’t consider – how people with disabilities are affected by a service gap that can leave them and their families at risk for abuse, neglect, and exploitation.”
As part of the Financial Education Innovator recognition, the Nusenda Foundation will contribute $500 to VAMOS, which will be used to provide opportunities for participants to engage in real-world application of the skills taught in the classroom, such as using public transportation, so they have more independence when they obtain permanent employment.
“(The contribution) will be used to purchase bus passes, as well as supplies for selected community service projects the group manages - a bake sale, a clothing drive, or community clean up - which may have some organizational costs,” Luce said. “These projects give participants an opportunity to work in a team towards a common goal, an essential skill for the workplace. The participants also practice budgeting and planning skills as they prepare for these events.”
Luce also said the program is looking for local businesses willing to provide internships for VAMOS graduates; as part of the AmeriCorps program, participants’ salaries are paid – employers only need to provide the job opportunities. For more information or to sign up, call 505-503-1141, ext. 702.
The Nusenda Foundation will be recognizing a Financial Education Innovator on a quarterly basis; nominees are accepted year-round and can be from diverse backgrounds, such as community organizations, nonprofits, and education and government sectors. For information on the Financial Education Innovator program and to enter a nomination, visit: www.nusendafoundation.org/innovators.