Did you know that women in America are 35 percent more likely than men to be poor, with single mothers facing the highest risk? In 2018, 12.9 percent of women compared to 10.6 percent of men lived below the government’s official poverty threshold. Moreover, the poverty rate for single-parent families with no wife present was 12.7 percent, while for families without a husband was an alarming 24.9 percent. In Texas alone, women head nine out of 10 single-parent homes, and in Houston, hold three out of every five part-time jobs. It’s clear that poverty rates for women are higher than those of men and that many women in the U.S. live on the brink of financial disaster.
Many factors contribute to the persistent inequality that is putting women at an economic disadvantage. The lack of financial education, for both men and women, and the lack of mentorship support accessible to women are some of the main culprits. While men generally receive some sort of direction and guidance in their lives from a relative or a mentor, women are often left out of the conversation.
Enter The Women’s Resource, a nonprofit organization and one of the leading providers of free financial education in the Houston, Texas, area that focuses on educating low-income women and girls. The Women’s Resource offers free and unbiased personal finance classes through various partnerships, and it has been proudly serving the Greater Houston area for the past three decades.
The roots of the organization date back to 1990, when a group of 12 visionary women, with the belief that “a woman who controls her finances, controls her destiny,” established The Women’s Resource. The organization started off by issuing grants and scholarships to other nonprofits and to individual women so that they could further their education, commissioned annual research on topics of significance to Houston’s women and girls, and launched a series of free financial education classes.
Over the years, the organization’s programs have further evolved to meet the changing needs of the community. In the early 2000s, The Women’s Resource made a dramatic shift from grant-making activities to concentrating its resources on education, training programs and building partnerships with other nonprofit organizations and community partners to promote their mission. In 2005, The Women’s Resource launched Project LEAD (now RISE!) in local high schools to help at-risk girls acquire the leadership and financial skills needed to be personally and professionally successful. It later launched financial classes to adults and a one-on-one mentorship program.
“Our mission is to serve and uplift women and girls in Houston and to empower them to become independent, productive and financially stable,” says Christine Powell, executive director at The Women’s Resource. “We believe that women need an essential foundation of financial knowledge and skills to be able to build a solid foundation for themselves and their families.”
One of the core programs that The Women’s Resource is proud to offer is RISE!, a four-year program designed for high school girls. The organization works together with area schools to pinpoint young women with high, untapped potential. These girls are given the financial education and leadership skills needed to succeed in life after high school.
“Our mission is to serve and uplift women and girls in Houston and to empower them to become independent, productive and financially stable.”
“The girls who are in the program are not the top 10 percent who always get noticed and not the bottom 10 percent who are always in the principal’s office, but those who are in-between, who can almost go unseen,” says Powell.
The program starts in their freshman year and continues through the end of high school. It’s delivered during school hours so that girls do not have to worry about missing classes or staying late. Through the interactive curriculum and weekly classes, the girls learn about decision-making, values, healthy living, self-confidence, career development, personal finance, budgeting and goal setting. Additionally, girls receive help with their college and financial aid applications, resume writing and interviewing skills. The girls also have an opportunity to visit local colleges and some of the Houston area’s top employers to learn from mentors who are business professionals.
RISE! Is offered in eight different schools in the Greater Houston Area, and it just reached the 300-girl mark. “We want to prepare girls as much as possible for their life after high school and give them skills they need to succeed, and I think RISE! Is a great program that does that,” says Jessika Davidson, communications and development director at The Women’s Resource.
And succeed they do. The 30 girls who graduated in the 2018-2019 school year from two of the RISE! partner schools collectively saved $45,725 of their own money, had 116 college acceptance letters, and were offered 43 college scholarships, including one girl who was offered a full-tuition scholarship at Wellesley College. Sixty-one percent of these girls are going to be the first in their family to go to college. “It’s just phenomenal what these girls are able to accomplish and how prepared they are for the next journey in their lives,” says Powell.
The Women’s Resource offers three programs specifically designed for adults. The YourLife Finance Classes program is a six-class series that covers banking, saving, budgeting, bill paying and credit management topics. The classes are taught by trained volunteers and take place at local nonprofits, libraries, businesses, jails and government agencies. YourLife Coaching is one-on-one coaching designed to help women manage their money and improve their financial future. And, YourLife Possibility Groups are groups of women from similar backgrounds who come together under the guidance of a volunteer coach to support each other in reaching their financial goals.
The curriculum is action-oriented and empowers clients to make real and lasting change in their lives from the get-go. The programs help women take responsibility for their actions, reduce debt, save toward a goal, improve credit and create a spending plan, all while delivering the tools, support and resources that women need in order to achieve their financial goals.
In 2019, with the support of volunteer instructors, The Women’s Resource provided over 1,400 women with free financial classes at 35 of their partner locations. Ninety-four percent of class participants felt more confident managing their finances after the program. On average, clients in YourLife coaching classes saw an increase of 47 points in their credit score and had $850 in savings upon graduation, and 82 percent of clients reported having disposable income in their budgets.
“We believe that women need an essential foundation of financial knowledge and skills to be able to build a solid foundation for themselves and their families.”
Over 40 agencies across 35 zip codes in the Houston area offer Women’s Resource’s classes at their locations. This allows the organization to reach a diverse group of women who may not otherwise be able to attend classes or have access to financial information.
The partners include other nonprofits, community centers, colleges, schools, shelters, transitional living centers and the county jail. “Our partnerships vary a lot, which gives us the opportunity to work with women from all walks of life,” says Powell. “Be it either partnership with a domestic violence shelter in Houston or the county jail, we have a huge heart and focus on supporting women who have experienced domestic violence, trying to rebuild their lives or entering back into the society.”
The Harris County Jail’s reentry program is designed to help vulnerable populations incarcerated by Harris County Jail transition back into their communities and help them become healthy, productive members of society. While this 90-day mentoring program has many components, The Women’s Resource provides the financial education element by teaching their six-class finance series.
The Women’s Resource works with three different groups of women in the reentry program—Mentoring Moms program, which helps women who are pregnant or have young children; the Freedom Project, which helps women who suffer from substance abuse; and Project EVOL-VE, an organization that helps women who are victims of human sex trafficking or prostitution.
“If you think about it, many women who are incarcerated are there because of economic reasons,” says Powell. “Whether it’s drug abuse or prostitution, all those have economic drivers behind them. By following our organization’s motto that ‘a woman who controls her finances, controls her destiny,’ we are trying to promote that philosophy within the classes and to prepare women for success once they get out.”
“Volunteers are the lifeblood of our organization,” says Davidson. In addition to teaching over 400 classes through YourLife finance classes, volunteers lead Possibility Groups, work with RISE! girls as guest speakers, and help with administrative duties and special events. Currently, The Women’s Resource has 135 volunteers, who have clocked in 3,652 volunteer hours.
“Most volunteers come to us from all walks of life,” says Powell. Whether they’re a trained professional in a banking industry, somebody with a real estate background or a retired individual who wants to give back to the community, The Women’s Resource provides them with the necessary training.
“I would say that the common thread for all our volunteers is that they’ve learned the hard way about finances and just want to pay it forward. And, if possible, they want to prevent somebody from making the same financial mistakes that they’ve made,” explains Powell.
One of the dedicated volunteers is Kham Vargas, a branch manager at East West Bank in Houston, who has been actively volunteering with The Women’s Resource for the past 15 years. “I love the organization, and I cannot talk enough about the impact that they have on the community and the awesome work that they do,” says Vargas, who has taught many classes and has been an active volunteer at the re-entry program.
The impact of The Women’s Resource does not just lie in numbers. “It is a ripple effect that not only impacts women, but also impacts generations to come,” Powell says proudly. “Take, for example, the girls from our RISE! program, who received college scholarships and will be first-generation college students. It’s almost unimaginable to think not only how this will change their lives, but also, being the first in the family to go to college, how transformative it is for their families and what standard they set for future generations.”
“Also, it's an emotional impact as well,” says Davidson. “Whether you are in debt or you don’t have much in savings, not being where you want to be financially causes a lot of stress. So, having that peace of mind as far as having a budget in place and working toward a savings goal completely changes your morale and your emotional well-being.”
“We have a very bold vision for The Women’s Resource for the next five years,” says Powell. In addition to strengthening existing partnerships and deepening the impact with the individuals the organization serves, the Women’s Resource wants to double the size of their RISE! program and bring the girls’ parents along the journey. The organization also wants to introduce the curriculum in Spanish and hire a third financial coach in order to support the Spanish speaking population of Houston.
Powell continues, “I feel like we do a phenomenal job with the RISE! girls, but we also want to introduce their parents to the education, tools and resources available so that they can reach their financial goals sooner and plan for the future of their child.”