Two years ago, Adaliz Rodriguez worked as a medical assistant, neck-deep in credit card debt and with no idea how to budget household expenses or even balance her checkbook. Today, the 34-year-old single mother not only balances her checkbook, but also plans to become an accountant — and has the savings to pay for the community college courses.
How did she do it? With the help and advice of her “coach,” Marissa Guananja.
“When I was ready to say, ‘This isn’t working, forget it,’ she’d say, ‘Come in, let’s talk,’ ” Rodriguez recalled. “Every time I saw a wall, she was like, ‘No, try this.’ ”
A little-known Chelsea nonprofit is helping financially struggling families by pairing them with life coaches like Guananja, showing that the simple act of sitting down and talking about problems can be an effective way to help people out of poverty.
The approach, inspired by Weight Watchers, has shown so much promise that the US Department of Labor recently awarded the nonprofit, The Neighborhood Developers, a $3 million grant to quadruple the number of people it serves in Chelsea and nearby communities to 4,000 a year, from 900.
“We could learn something here,” said Holly O’Brien, regional administrator for the Labor Department. “If it’s a good model, we want to replicate it, and replicate it everywhere.”
The program, called Connect, began several years ago as a financial management and self-sufficiency class offered by Neighborhood Developers, which builds affordable housing in Chelsea's dense immigrant neighborhoods. Executive director Ann Houston said the class taught participants how to budget income, boost credit, and build savings.
Yet the agency found that participants — mostly single mothers — faced more than financial obstacles to homeownership, from an inability to speak English, to unstable living situations, to a lack of skills. And many had no time to visit the various public agencies, banks, or colleges to get the help they needed.
Houston and Guananja, now director of Connect, decided the women needed a variety of services under one roof. Houston said they also decided the women needed coaching — the same kind of coaching that helped Houston lose 80 pounds through Weight Watchers.
So they set up a coaching system, meeting with clients one-on-one and offering counseling by phone or e-mail whenever they needed it. They also will establish peer groups that will meet in person and online, much the same way Weight Watchers offers groups to give customers a long-term support network. Unlike Weight Watchers, however, there is nothing they have to buy to participate.
“This is about people learning to live their lives in a different way, in a way that makes sense,” Houston said. “You have to learn to budget and you have to learn English and learn work skills and you have to learn new ways of living. And you need help along the way.”
It was an ambitious plan. Chelsea, a city of 40,000 north of Boston, has unemployment, poverty, and foreclosure rates above the state average. It also has one of the largest concentrations of working poor in the state; 75 percent of adults with children have jobs, yet 59 percent are low-income.
Houston and Guananja persuaded Bunker Hill Community College to send admissions and financial aid counselors to their offices once a month to help participants sign up for classes and apply for financial aid. Centro Latino de Chelsea, another nonprofit, agreed to offer English and GED classes there, too. The Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership , which ran a housing counseling program, also offered workshops for landlords and tenants under Neighborhood Developers’ roof. Metro Credit Union has visited regularly to offer conventional banking options, helping participants avoid high-priced payday loans.
But coaching became an integral component. Guananja said many of the women, often juggling more than one job while caring for children, lived such busy lives that it was difficult for them to even think about their goals, never mind accomplish them. So they needed coaches to hold them accountable if they sometimes failed to make progress.
“You can have all the tools in the world,” said Guananja, “and if you’re not ready to use them, you won’t.”
Many were more than ready. Avalon John, a 32-year-old single mother who works at a nonprofit helping victims of domestic violence, began saving for a house, but realized she would need a higher income to become a homeowner. After getting a promotion and raise at work, she decided to use her savings to take psychology classes at Bunker Hill Community College, with plans to become a social worker.
And when she felt like the demand of work, child care, school, and participating in the financial self-sufficiency course grew to be too much, Guananja was there, encouraging her.
“I would see her randomly at restaurants and on the street,” John said. “You don’t expect to see someone outside the office, but she was always asking me about my progress.”
Rene Brimmage, 48, was living on disability payments when she took the financial management class three years ago. With help from her coach, Carol Rijo, she got a job as a cleaner at Boston Sports Club. Brimmage was later promoted to the front desk and eventually left to become a full-time personal care assistant working with disabled children.
Now she juggles work with classes at the University of Massachusetts Boston, hoping to earn a degree in counseling. “Carol helped rebuild my confidence,” Brimmage said. “I know I can achieve my goals.”
Carmela Solice, 40, said she heard about the program after she was laid off from a job in construction and visited the state unemployment office. In recent years, she has found full-time work in an insurance agency, but the Everett resident decided to enroll in the Connect program a few months ago anyway.
“I want more financial independence,” Solice said. “I want to be a homeowner instead of a renter and I’m interested in going back to school again.”
Houston and Guananja said the response to the program inspired them to apply for federal grant funding last spring. And in their quest to offer more services in one place, they met with state labor officials, persuading them to open a satellite career center under their roof in June.
Secretary of Labor and Workforce Development Joanne Goldstein said many agencies want a jobs office, but she was impressed by what Houston and Guananja were trying to accomplish.
“Putting all the agencies and partners under one roof makes it easier to address obstacles and far more likely the individual will succeed,” Goldstein said. “People have been discussing this concept, but this is one of the first experiments in the Commonwealth where people have actually put everything together.”
In addition to the federal grant, Neighborhood Developers is about halfway through a capital campaign to raise $1 million to expand its Chelsea offices to accommodate more clients and support groups. It includes a coffee bar.
“A lot of time has been spent on relationship building,” Guananja said. “You really can’t underestimate that process.”
Megan Woolhouse can be reached at mwoolhouse@