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STORY BY Barbara Pash   PHOTOGRAPHY BY André Chung

educational_tran_glassburnMichelle Glassburn, president of the nonprofit financial education service makingChange, leads a seminar for employees at E-Structors, Inc.Michelle Glassburn did a double take when she saw the woman at a fast food restaurant, where she’d stopped for a quick lunch. The last time Glassburn had seen her, the woman, single and in her late 30s, had been living in a homeless shelter. Now, she was nicely dressed, and the two greeted each other warmly. It turned out, she had a job at a local department store and was living in her own apartment.

The woman showed Glassburn that she still carried around the financial handouts that Glassburn had given to her.  “She told me, ‘Once I got a job, I learned how to budget,’” says Glassburn. “She had a goal, and she saved her money for rent.”

Glassburn loves to recount the tale. It’s proof, she says, that her organization, makingChange, is making a difference.

A Clarksville resident and mother of two, Glassburn, leads financial education programs that reach 2,000 to 3,000 Howard County residents each year.

MakingChange dates to 1991, when Glassburn’s father, Dwight Burrill, former president of Howard Community College, founded the small nonprofit, with the hopes of imparting financial education to those most in need. However, programming didn’t begin until 1999, when Glassburn left her job as director of Johns Hopkins University’s Gateway Campus in Columbia, to join her father. A few years later, she left the organization to start a family, but in 2007, when her father retired, she returned to makingChange as its president.

When she took over, Glassburn says she found “a lot of untapped potential.” One of the biggest opportunities for expansion came with the Internet. Previously, the group had focused on offering seminars to outside organizations. There were many opportunities to reach more people by offering information online, she says. Glassburn began to seek out corporate partners and started the Howard County Financial Education Alliance, a public/private coalition for financial literacy.

Glassburn also increased the number and variety of settings for the financial education group workshops, the heart of makingChange.

Some are offered through the auspices of Howard County agencies and nonprofit organizations like the Community Action Council’s North Laurel/Savage Multi-Service Center and Grassroots Crisis Intervention, respectively. Others are given directly in public schools and senior centers and through employers.

One of those employers is E-Structors, an electronic and document recycler in Elkridge, which hired makingChange to provide financial education seminars to its 160 employees.

“A lot of them were struggling with finances. We felt we needed to do this for them,” says owner Julie Keough, who first learned about makingChange at a presentation Glassburn made to a Howard County business group.

Now in their second year, the hour-long seminars are held monthly, as “lunch-and-learns” in a designated room in the plant. Available at no charge to all employees, the sessions regularly attract a core group of about 30, with others dropping in for particular topics.

The topics include: dealing with banks, paying taxes, buying health insurance and saving for a home. And Keough particularly likes the practical way they are handled.

One worker kept being charged overdraft fees by his bank. “He didn’t understand why and what he could do about it,” Keough says. The seminar not only answered the why but showed him that he could negotiate with the bank. “It was a waste of his money that he had control over,” she says.

For a seminar on long-term savings, especially for a substantial purchase, like a house, the makingChange facilitator brought in that day’s real estate section from the local newspaper. The real houses and real prices were a backdrop to discussing what it would take to make a down payment.

Keough is proud to report that “one worker saved for a house and now owns it.”

MakingChange operates out of an office in Columbia. With three part-time workers along with contractors and volunteer facilitators, the annual budget of about $135,000 comes from foundation grants, fundraising events and fees for services. Much of the organization’s work is done by volunteers, drawing from a stable of retired educators and financial advisers.

“Our programs are geared to adults with low and moderate incomes, to give them the basics of what they need to know. It’s not just the wealthy” who need to understand how to manage their money, says Glassburn, although given the tough economic times, clients in the latter group are rapidly increasing.

Appearances can be deceiving, and that’s especially true in Howard County, with its well appointed neighborhoods. Glassburn says you have to look beyond the charming houses with two cars parked in the driveway to see the reality.

“So many people are under water on their mortgage. So many people are close to the edge. People who relied on two incomes are in distress,” she says.

“People are used to a certain lifestyle,” Glassburn continues, and it’s not easy to change. “There’s a lot of psychological and emotional baggage in adjusting to the new reality. You have to be honest. You have to be realistic. You have to be strong in yourself.”

To meet these challenges, Glassburn has expanded makingChange in ways other than the group workshops. She has developed a speaker’s bureau for schools and Howard Community College; started an online course in money management; and is now offering free, personalized financial counseling for low-income Howard County residents, by appointment at the North Laurel/Savage Multi-Service Center.

A married couple in their 70s who relied on Social Security checks, came to the center to help figure out why they were coming up short each month. The situation had gotten so dire that their electricity was about to be cut off.

“We examined their bank account and figured out what was going on,” Glassburn says. “They were victims of theft. Their adult son was withdrawing money from their account.”

Also at the center, makingChange facilitators are counseling 60 families individually who need more than the group workshops. “This is not a one-shot deal. We are seeing them over a period of time,” Glassburn says.

At Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center in Columbia, makingChange provides a monthly workshop tailored to clients of the private, nonprofit homeless shelter and crisis intervention center. The workshops average 10 to 18 people and are free to Grassroots and free to participants.

“The focus is very practical things like understanding credit, looking for an apartment and buying a car without getting ripped off,” says Kathie Dinoto, Grassroots’ director of shelter programs, who calls clients’ reception “very positive.”

Says Dinoto, “People tell me [the workshops] are eye-opening. Partly, it’s the instructors, who are down-to-earth and approachable; partly, they’re pertinent to what [the clients] are doing.”

She cites one shelter client who had a job. Money was being deducted from her paycheck although she didn’t understand why or for what. Thanks to the workshops, she asked, and found out that the deductions were for a company-required retirement plan.

“What makingChange does is empowering,” says Dinoto. “You are giving people knowledge and skills.”

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