Welcome to Meet the Counselor, where we meet credit counselors and financial coaches certified by NACCC. Today, Paula Chamberlain of Mercy Housing and Human Development shares how she uses her financial counseling skills to help provide housing and encourage community development in Mississippi.
NACCC: Can you introduce yourself and your organization?
Chamberlain: I’m Paula Chamberlain and I work for Mercy Housing & Human Development (MMHD), a Hud-approved 501 (c)3 nonprofit organization based in Gulfport, Mississippi. I’m a Certified Credit Counselor (through NACCC) and also hold certifications in financial counseling, financial capabilities, homebuyer education and am currently working towards my homebuyer advisor certification. As with most nonprofit employees, I wear many hats. My duties consist of credit counseling, facilitating homebuyer education classes, financial coaching, budgeting and money management, along with grant writing, community outreach, speaking engagements, and assisting with reports and other administrative tasks.
Our mission is to develop strategies to provide housing, community and economic development in the coastal counties of Mississippi. Through research and analysis, advocacy, direct services and community organizing, MHHD responds to community needs.
Homeownership education and counseling, financial and credit counseling and coaching, foreclosure prevention and a variety of educational programs are offered to the community as well as free tax preparation, rental counseling, post-purchase support and Affordable Care Act navigation.
Facing Financial Challenges
Chamberlain’s job isn’t easy, she faces new challenges every day, but she still finds success by approaching every problem with an individual approach.
NACCC: What are the biggest challenges you face?
Chamberlain: Because each client is unique, they all present their own individual challenges. There is no universal cookie-cutter formula that works for everyone; that’s not feasible. We have to build trust with each client in order to find their motivations, then design a customized action plan.
The first thing I do as a counselor is create a budget, though we call it a spending plan or cash flow analysis since there’s a stigma attached to the word “budget” for many people. That is one the most challenging parts of the counseling process. Many clients have never taken pen to paper and written down their budget and they over/underestimate their spending patterns. They’re afraid of being judged and often times they are embarrassed or simply don’t know how much they actually spend. It’s difficult to help them set financial goals if we don’t have a clear and concise picture of their actual cash flow. Building a rapport and safe place for my client to be open and honest about their finances (sometimes that means being honest with themselves for the first time) is a vital step before continuing the counseling process.
Wanting my client’s success more than they do is a major challenge. Initially, it was very difficult for me when a client didn’t show up for an appointment or didn’t follow-through on action plans. It actually hurt me a little that they weren’t as excited about their dream as I was. I realized that at times I felt more passionate about their goals than they did. Learning to let go of that and accepting that we can’t help everyone (even though we want to) is crucial. It’s important to care about our client’s success, but it’s equally important not to invest more of ourselves than they do.
One of my personal challenges is not taking enough time for “self-care.” I tend to take my work home with me and find myself spending my weekends researching new financial resources, creating new worksheets, and re-reading training manuals. I’m passionate about my work and that’s a positive trait, but I’m learning that having some downtime to relax and recharge is necessary.
Finding Success and Moving Forward
NACCC: What are your biggest successes?
Chamberlain: The greatest success is when our clients have that “a-ha” moment when something truly resonates with them. Seeing somebody move from being afraid of credit and not being motivated to create a healthy spending plan to being excited about finances and setting attainable goals is indescribable. We get to witness this on a regular basis and it feels incredible every single time. These are the clients who are able to create new financial habits and instill healthy financial behaviors in their children.
NACCC: What are you doing going forward?
Chamberlain: Our counselors are continually taking classes and trainings and always expanding our knowledge and skills. We have programs that remain constant, yet we are constantly evolving in order to meet the changing needs of our community.
A Small Organization Doing Big Work
Mercy Housing and Human Development has a small staff, but every staff member contributes to the bigger picture and changes Mississippi for the better.
NACCC: What do you wish people knew about your job or organization that they probably don’t know?
Chamberlain: We are small but mighty. Even though we only have a staff of eight, we have made significant changes in our community through our programs. We have been in operation for over 20 years and are a vital hub on financial sustainability within the community.
What sets us apart; however, is the time we take with each individual. We are not a revolving door that just wants to hit our “marks.” We build trust and rapport with each client and will work with them for as long as they need. MHHD has had some clients who have taken over three years to reach their goals, and we have been with them every step of the way. We take pride in the fact that once you walk through our doors, you are “family” and are always welcome. We have successful clients who return year after year for financial or post-purchase advice or sometimes just to stop in to say hello.
Unique Approaches to Every Individual
NACCC: Do you have an inspiring story about your work or your organization to share?
Chamberlain: The one that sticks out in my mind the most is a client I’ll call “Ms. B.” She first became a client in 1999 when she was already in her 60’s. She had always dreamed of owning her home, but over the years, she had finally given up on that dream. She came to a homebuyer class with a friend to lend support and ended up enrolling in the program. It took her a few years of learning how to budget and save, and time to improve her credit. Two years later, when she was 62 years old, she received the keys to her new home.
Over the years, she would come back and visit and seek our counsel for major purchases and repairs. However, a few years ago, due to circumstances beyond Ms. B.’s control, her home was in danger of foreclosure. Our foreclosure counselors worked diligently with Ms. B., her family, and the loan originator to save her home. There was no way that we would let her lose her home, (one that she had worked so hard to obtain in her 60s) at 77 years old. Ms. B. is no longer able to drive, but she still calls our office at least once a week to let us know that she loves us, is praying for us, and that we are all her friends. She’s like our own personal ray of sunshine.
We have the privilege of seeing stories like this one unfold. This is what motivates us to keep learning and growing both personally and professionally. Our small work team is #TeamMercy. We assist one another when we have “difficult” clients and celebrate with each other when our clients succeed. We continually support one another and that is a big factor in our success as an organization.
Advice for New Financial Counselors
Chamberlain has plenty of advice for new financial counselors and others working for small organizations.
NACCC: What advice would you give to a newly certified financial counselor?
Chamberlain: The most important advice I have for a newly-certified financial counselor is to help your client set goals. Encourage them to find their motivation. As soon as their goal becomes personally relevant, you see that spark. Now they have a reason to succeed.
However, don’t take it personally if a client doesn’t follow through or if they don’t complete the agreed-upon action steps. As counselors, we want all of our clients to succeed. But we have to understand that we cannot take action steps for them.
My last piece of advice would be to continue learning! Take advantage of every opportunity you can to advance your knowledge and skills. The day you think you have learned everything there is to know is the day you need to retire.
NACCC: What trait would you say is most valuable in a financial counselor?
Chamberlain: Compassion and communication. There are a myriad of vital traits such as effective time-management, advanced knowledge of the materials you are teaching, and the ability to find resources. I could probably list more, but having compassion for the client and excellent communication skills (such as active listening) is what brings results.
Staying Inspired and Motivated
NACCC: How do you stay motivated and what do you like most about your work?
Chamberlain: This work can be emotionally draining and the paperwork is never-ending. It can be mentally exhausting at times and there are always new challenges.
What motivates me most is remembering where I came from and how I wish I knew then what I know now. When I was in my late 30s I was a recently widowed, single mom of two sons. We were below the poverty level. I struggled to pay the bills and put food on the table. I managed to give my sons what they needed with semi-decent budgeting skills and hard work. But I didn’t understand credit or the importance of saving (even just a dollar a week). At the time I made every single financial mistake that could be made. My family suffered for it.
Then I went back to college and obtained my B.A. in Sociology and Psychology. Next, I was hired at MHHD and started taking classes on financial management. My sons had just graduated from high school, and I was finally able to teach my sons and demonstrate being financially healthy by example. Because of this, I have a soft spot for single mothers who are struggling to find their way out of bleak financial situations. Most of them are greatly motivated to succeed because of their children and they are determined to “break the cycle.” Being able to educate and guide them to financial empowerment and success is extremely fulfilling. There have been many tears of joy and hugs exchanged throughout the years with my clients who have reached their financial goals or purchased their first home.
Knowing I get to be a part of that journey is the best motivation I can imagine.
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