September 2013 Groundviews newsletter: Holding herself accountable

Groundviews is Solid Ground’s quarterly newsletter for our friends and supporters. Below is our September 2013 lead story; please visit our website to read the entire issue online.

Sally Mary de Leon (r) with Financial Fitness Boot Camp Program Supervisor, Judy Poston (l)

Sally Mary de Leon (r) with Financial Fitness Boot Camp Program Supervisor, Judy Poston (l)

Sally Mary de Leon’s world flipped upside down when she finally got the courage to divorce her abusive husband, leaving her with nothing but her two children and a mountain of debt.

She says, “I just wanted him out – so I took the mortgage, I took all the debt, while he took everything else. He took the money; he took my stuff. So I essentially had to start over.” To make that new start possible, she filed for bankruptcy in 2010. 

But as a survivor of domestic violence, a veteran and an LPN who spent five intense years working in hospice care, Sally Mary now found herself physically and emotionally unable to work full time. She says, “I carried other people’s trauma, so it added to my own personal baggage.”

Sally Mary and her kids were living in transitional housing when she took a money management class at the Veterans Affairs (VA) Women’s Trauma & Recovery Center in Seattle, taught by Judy Poston, Program Supervisor of Solid Ground’s Financial Fitness Boot Camp. Sally Mary says, “I was really skeptical at first. The thing was, I didn’t have any money to manage! But then she presented on credit – writing your creditors and asking them to reduce your debt or eliminate it – and also going over your credit report and what can be done about it.”  

She’s there for me
Even after finding out that financial empowerment services were available to her, Sally Mary says, “It was really hard to ask for help. Because I’ve always done everything myself. There is a stigma that surrounds me, that when you have a handout, it’s bad. I felt incapable; I felt worthless.”

She changed her tune after a few one-to-one sessions with Judy, realizing, “It really isn’t bad. When I had my hand out, she didn’t put stuff on my hand – she held my hand! She essentially led me! I’ve learned through her that I don’t have to be ashamed. I’m not the only one that goes through this. And she’s constantly telling me that she’s there for me, which is great. Every time I look back, she’s right behind!”

As a financial coach, Judy says she’s learned from Sally Mary the importance of establishing relationships when working with vets. “A lot of people who have PTSD, the most important thing is to not be time consumed – to be willing to sit and listen to their story – even if you never talk about finances the first two or three appointments. Building trust is huge.”

Sally Mary agrees, “You definitely did that for me, because I wouldn’t have been able to open up the way I did. I am very grateful that I met Judy and for Financial Fitness Boot Camp being available. She’s very willing to listen and be open, and you’re absolutely not judgmental.”

Through Judy, Sally Mary found she qualified for a continuum of housing stabilization programs. “She was essentially a gateway to everything I’ve been doing with Solid Ground.” And Sally Mary says when she was granted VA Supportive Housing, “I needed not only help learning how to manage the money that I have and prioritizing what bills to pay, I was able to get help in a down payment for housing.” 

Sally Mary speaks her truth about predatory lending & debt collection practices on KCBS 91.3 FM

Sally Mary speaks her truth about predatory lending & debt collection practices on KCBS 91.3 FM

A reciprocal relationship
From the beginning of her engagement with Solid Ground, Sally Mary has been an asset, referring other vets to our services and connecting Judy with helpful information. Judy says, “She’s a walking resource book; when I have questions about VA/vets’ resources, this is who I can call.”

After hearing Sally Mary’s story, Judy connected her with Solid Ground’s advocacy efforts through the Statewide Poverty Action Network. Sally Mary spoke out on public radio about her struggles getting a checking account and her experiences with predatory debt collection practices (known as Zombie Debt). She says when she filed for bankruptcy, all of her debt (except for student loans and parking/traffic tickets) should have been dismissed, but “I literally have three debts that keep coming back to me through different creditors. It never fails, every three months there’s a new company contacting me. That’s not fair. If I did my part, why do they have to keep bringing back my old debt?”

She also spoke about predatory lending and how – thanks to Judy’s advice – she avoided the payday loan trap. Sally Mary says she was excited to get involved with Poverty Action because, “There are so many big people speaking for other big people, so I feel like us little people gotta stick together, because there’s a lot more of us. I see us as ants: As people, we carry a huge strength among us, and as we work together as a group, we can definitely move mountains.”

A work in progress
But despite moving her own financial mountains, Sally Mary is hard on herself. She says, “At this point, I think I’m a work in progress. I’ll admit it: I have this cycle of spending. When I feel ashamed, I go and buy something, and I feel good – but then I feel bad that I’ve spent the money and I feel shameful again.” Breaking into an infectious laugh, she says, “Judy gives me a lot of great ideas. Half of them I’ve implemented. I do try to be cognizant of what I’m doing, but it’s hard to remain honest with myself when no one’s holding me accountable.” Ever the coach, Judy counters, “I always like to tell Sally Mary that she has to hold herself accountable; that’s where it all starts. And I’m here as a support.”

Then Judy rattles off many ways Sally Mary has been accountable: “You’ve identified that you’re going to save this much per month – what it’s going to take to put that amount in the bank every month. You made the choices, and you’ve stuck with everything that we talked about and that you planned to do.” Sally agrees, “I definitely want to build self-esteem, and one of the ways to do that is having financial independence.”

In six months, if all goes well, Sally Mary’s student loans will be dismissed, and she’ll be debt-free. “I went from crawling to wheelchair to crutches, and I’m at a cane now. And who knows, maybe I’ll always need a cane? But at least I’m standing on my own two feet. And one thing I’ve learned from Judy is be forgiving. I’m still working on it!”

For more info on Financial Fitness Boot Camp, please visit: 
www.solid-ground.org/Programs/Housing/Financial

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