Lillian Boyd, Dana Point Times

Principal Kristen Nelson says that R.H. Dana Elementary School is much like a family.

In the past year, in light of the economic impact of COVID-19, Nelson says the school has worked hard take care of its family to offer parenting classes, food distribution, and formed partnerships with organizations in order to bring resources to needy families.

On Sept. 1, Dana Point City Council approved a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the city and Orange County United Way for the purpose of providing financial literacy coaching and education, case management and wrap-around services to parents of R.H. Dana Elementary school and residents of Dana Point. The goal is for families to be equipped to overcome barriers to stable housing.

The partnership has been part of an ongoing effort for Councilmember Paul Wyatt—who formerly headed the city’s Homeless Task Force—to find ways to remediate underlying causes of homelessness.

“There are usually either two reasons for homelessness,” Wyatt said. “There is either a behavioral issue, like drugs, alcohol or mental health issues, or, you don’t have enough money to rent a place to live. With financial homelessness, you can’t just offer someone money to cover their rent for the month, because next month is right around the corner. The same problem will be there.”

Wyatt met with Susan Parks, CEO of Orange County United Way, in search of solutions. The nonprofit organization had already established Sparkpoint, a money-smart workshop series that has been held in North Orange County cities including Santa Ana and Westminster. Plans were already in the works to seek out and establish a first South Orange County location—possibly R.H. Dana.

“We want every student to graduate and to be college-, career- or life-ready,” Parks said. “One big focus for United Way is economic security. We want to help every family improve their financial well-being so that our students have that stability to allow them to succeed in school.”

Now that the Capistrano Unified School District Board of Trustees voted for its participation in August and the city’s approved MOU, the program has become a collaboration among the two agencies and Orange County United Way.

Parents will be provided with personal coaching on a step-by-step financial plan to achieve personal goals and long-term financial stability, including job development, debt and credit management, and savings planning. Participants will also be able to connect to other United Way partner services, including free tax preparation, housing, health care, and transportation.

While discussing finances can be a vulnerable issue for families, Principal Nelson says that outreach will be sensitive to that.

“Our outreach will be based on being very transparent with what will be covered in the three-month program and explaining that when with a larger group, the training will be educationally focused,” Nelson said. “They will not be asked to share anything personal about their finances.”

However, if a client wants to work individually or as a family with a case manager who has knowledge in financial literacy, banking, managing debt, and housing, they can sign up to have a case manager who will work with them confidentially.

The program provides three months of financial literacy coaching to at least 50 client families of R.H. Dana and 50 client families who reside in Dana Point but do not have children who attend the school.

“The financing becomes a bridge toward a solid foundation,” Wyatt said. “Without a plan, you’re just putting water into a bucket with a leak.”

The city has agreed to actively identify and refer eligible families and work with OCUW to create a needs-assessment survey. Nelson says that the collaboration across all agencies is something for which she’s deeply grateful.

“This financial literacy program is not just giving our families a fish, but teaching them how to fish,” Nelson said. “In these uncertain times, we are being proactive to help families face the financial ups and downs through education and planning.”

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