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From down and out to newly hired: How Mirabel Ortiz found financial hope through APM’s Financial Opportunity Center

January 22, 2013

“The biggest concern in a mother’s mind is ‘How am I going to feed my children?’” said Mirabel Ortiz, who was laid off from her job last September.

The fear really set in when she went to the grocery store with her kids the next week. Although she hated to see her two boys go without their favorite foods, the family would need to cut back to the essentials. She had been barely scraping by when she had a job. How was she going to provide for her kids now that she was unemployed?

In the past seven years, more parents like Ortiz have been finding it hard to feed themselves and their kids, especially when they’re out of a job. The Great Recession has nearly doubled unemployment in Philadelphia, which stands at 10.8% – and that doesn’t count underemployment. The impact has been even more significant in lower income and working class neighborhoods like Eastern North, where over half of residents live below the poverty level.

Things started to look up when Ortiz found out about APM’s new Financial Opportunity Center (FOC), a one stop shop for folks looking to turn their financial burdens around.

Mirabel Ortiz crop 3rds

It didn’t take very long to get results, but it was a difficult process, she explained. “You just have to keep on doing it and keep on doing it and keep on doing it.”

It was one month after being laid off that Ortiz heard about the FOC from her sister. Ortiz, like many clients, came in to APM’s Center looking for help finding work. She was nervous, expecting a difficult and impersonal process. “As soon as you walk into the building, you’re greeted by someone who makes you feel comfortable, makes you feel like she cares,” Ortiz remembered.

In addition, the FOC staff is trained to treat each client as creative, resourceful, and whole, and to offer comprehensive services to help with whatever financial burdens individuals and families may be facing. “Everything is in one office,” Ortiz said.

And that’s the whole idea behind the Financial Opportunity Center. The key to the FOC model is helping clients improve their whole financial situation: accessing the public assistance they need, bringing more money home, finding a job or a better job, tackling debt and improving credit, and saving and investing for the future. The centers are based on a successful national model that LISC is implementing at 65 sites in 25 cities nationwide. Philadelphia LISC opened this city’s first two FOCs last summer, with partners Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha (APM) and University City District.

Even while employed, Ortiz was only barely able to afford groceries. Most of her paycheck was already allocated to her mortgage, car payments, insurance, and health insurance. When she lost her job, she put off paying the bills in order to feed her kids. “I was barely making it,” she said.

FOC staff connected Ortiz to food stamps, utility assistance, and medical assistance first, to make sure she had the basics covered for her and her two sons (one of whom is Diabetic). After nearly two months of scraping by, Ortiz was relieved to be able to get her groceries without sacrificing her financial future. “I didn’t have to leave bills unpaid just to go grocery shopping,” she said.

With income coming in, Ortiz was able to bring new energy and optimism to her job search. She came in to the FOC every week to work with a jobs counselor. She tweaked her resume often to keep it fresh, searched new job listings, and applied to those she felt were the best fit. APM’s staff was a huge help, she said, but she’s also proud that she did the work herself. “When you’re frustrated because nothing’s going through, they say ‘Maybe that wasn’t the one for you, but maybe this one will be.’ And they keep motivating you.”

After a number of promising leads fell through, Ortiz felt her historic credit issues might be impacting her job search. Back in 2007, Ortiz was forced into foreclosure and bankruptcy. After splitting from her husband, one income was simply not enough to handle the mortgage, car payments, medical bills, and food for the kids. “I wish I had known someone then to better help me in making decisions as far as my house was concerned,” she said. She thinks it is especially important that APM offers housing counseling as an additional FOC service.

APM’s staff committed to supporting Ortiz in addressing her credit, but there was nothing she could do immediately, especially without a source of income. She’d have to put that source of stress and anxiety behind her and find the courage and confidence to look boldly to the future. She continued to work with APM in applying for jobs, especially with companies who were eager to hire.

When Ortiz finally got a call about an interview, she realized she didn’t have an interview suit. What she was accustomed to wearing to work was not going to impress a hiring manager. Luckily, FOC staff were able to connect Ortiz with Career Wardrobe, a nonprofit that works to fill this gap, helping women who are transitioning to work find an appropriate professional outfit for their interview, free of charge. Now she was ready to put her best foot forward.

After three interviews, Ortiz was offered an entry-level job working with the customer service department of a health insurance company. To her surprise, they offered her starting pay at $16 per hour. Opportunities for advancement in the company also seemed likely. Ortiz accepted the position, starting January 14th.

What’s more, since Ortiz was hired after her interview, Career Wardrobe will give her 3 new outfits!

Mirabel Ortiz crop 3rds2

APM staff joined her in celebration. “When we found out, we all cheered, jumped for joy,” she said.

With a job secured, Ortiz is looking forward to putting herself on sound financial footing. At one APM workshop with PNC Bank, for example, she learned about automatic savings accounts that withdraw a portion of the paycheck as soon as it’s deposited. Now enrolled, she expects this tool will help her save some money in a disciplined way.

In addition to Ortiz, in its first 6 months operating the FOC, APM has touched the lives of more than 74 people and their families. Out of the 53 people who enrolled to get help finding better employment, 29 received work supports (including transportation or clothing assistance) and 8 people like Ortiz have been able to increase their income with new jobs or better wages.  In addition, APM helped 41 families gain access to benefits such as child care assistance, food stamps, medical benefits, and utility assistance. And 66 people attended financial counseling workshops (like the two Ortiz attended).

Now that tax season has begun, in the coming months APM and Ceiba look to help over 250 families complete their tax returns, brining much needed income back into the pockets and communities of working families in Eastern North. Ultimately, the FOC offers all of these services under one roof to help people address and improve their whole financial situation, starting with the necessities and working toward a strong financial foundation.

Having secured a source of income also means Ortiz can enjoy being a mom without all the worrying about how to provide for her boys. “I’ve never shown my kids a difference as far as what is going on,” she explained, “but inside I know that we weren’t at the plateau where we were before.” Ortiz believes she now has a chance to put herself on the path of personal freedom. Focusing on her kids and enjoying life is now more possible.

Nearly all of the stress and emotional burden Ortiz had been carrying since she was laid off has been lifted with her new prospects. But she knows she still has a lot of work left to do. “Once I reach that financial point,” she said, “it’s going to liberate me from all the pressure that I have had on me.”

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