First Federal helps students start fresh with new checking accounts

By: Sandra Olivais

Kristyn Tillman could barely hear over the blowing hairdryer, buzzing electric clippers, and barking dogs as she groomed a sweet, tan poodle standing tall on the grooming table. “You think you know a lot about dogs until you come here and learn so much more about them,” she said. Tillman is a student of The Grooming Project (EPEC, Inc), Kansas City’ s unique dog grooming school located at 5829 Troost Ave. that helps families like hers break the cycle of poverty. The 22-year-old is a single mom with a 9-month-old. Tillman’s mother first introduced her to this special job training program.

“It blew my mind when my mom told me I can make more money than her even though she went to college and has a bachelor’s degree. I will be in school here for 6 months and I am excited to have a career where I can make up to $60,000 a year. I am doing this for my baby and for myself,” she said.

Back in 2011, The Grooming Project CEO Natasha Kirsch encountered countless young moms seeking help from her in their job search when Kirsch was a volunteer at another local nonprofit.

“On any given day, I would have eight to ten homeless moms sitting outside my office waiting for me to help them,” Kirsch said. “They had felonies on their record, some with two or three kids, no car, no GED or some couldn’t even read. I couldn’t possibly think of what they could do that would make enough money to support their families and how we could help with all these barriers.

”The idea for The Grooming Project blossomed when Kirsch’s mother explained the difficulties she had in finding qualified groomers to join her pet salon.

“I just put the two things together and said, ‘Mom I wish you could come here and start a grooming business.’ And we got together and figured out how to open a grooming school,” Kirsch said.

Scissor skills are just the start: students learn life skills and get a checking account.

Now, five years later, the nonprofit has helped 81 impoverished women and men complete 644 classroom hours to master their pet grooming skills. But that’s only one piece of what makes this remarkable program succeed. Kirsch sought partners to support the students with mental health care, life skills, parenting courses and financial coaching from trained staff at Community Services League. As the students were learning to manage their money, Kirsch turned to a new banking partner, First Federal Bank of Kansas City, to provide education and support.

“It’s funny because we weren’t even a client of First Federal Bank,” she said. “I started working with Mark Rieger from First Federal after we met at a local entrepreneurial conference. I was telling him that we give our students a stipend of $125 per week and they get tips on top of that. But they couldn’t get a bank account anywhere.”

Some students were denied bank accounts previously due to the lack of an established home address or bounced check charges left unpaid at another bank. She said many students did not trust banking institutions either, leading Kirsch to only one option; Each week, she withdrew $2,000 in cash from her bank and split the money into envelopes for each student.

Not only was this impractical to do every week, but Kirsch said it was unsafe for the students.

“I would be giving cash to all these moms who were coming from homeless shelters, or living on other people’s couches, so sometimes the money got stolen. If you get robbed, they will look under your mattress or dresser drawer where you are staying. This was the only money they had. So, believe it or not, some told me they would have to bury their money in the ground, so it wouldn’t get stolen. I never knew this was a real thing,” Kirsch said.

When Mark Rieger, Client Experience Officer at First Federal Bank of Kansas City, heard how The Grooming Project seized an opportunity to end the cycle of poverty, he immediately searched for ways to build a partnership with the nonprofit.

“Breaking that cycle of poverty that’s so challenging to overcome, that’s the big problem that she has solved,” Rieger said. “But it’s really a series of solving smaller problems, whether it’s transportation, housing, dental care, insurance, or other barriers to success. We thought maybe there’s a way for us to start by solving a small problem of safely getting weekly stipends to students by opening bank accounts, and it has grown from there.”

Tillman said opening her first bank account gave her a tremendous sense of freedom and pride. “My favorite thing is instant banking. I can go in and click instant banking and see my balance. It makes me feel responsible, more mature. It’s different than having a chime card or cash app card. It’s like I feel more grounded having a regular bank account,” Tillman said.

Putting students in the driver’s seat, often for the first time

Today, Kirsch is trying to remove another barrier hampering her students on the road to success: safe and reliable transportation.

“Transportation is key. If you can’t get to your work or get to childcare, then your whole life falls apart. So, we can train people in dog grooming all day and all night, but if they don’t have a car to get to work, they might be on a bus for hours because not all grooming spots are on an easy bus route,” Kirsch said.

If students can save enough money for a down payment, Kirsch learned that due to bad credit or no credit score, the car dealerships were charging 12-25 percent interest on a vehicle that’s not worth the purchase price.

Rieger saw this as another opportunity for First Federal Bank to lend a hand.

“We thought maybe the bank, through an auto loan program that’s subsidized with a reserve fund that donors could help support, could get them reliable transportation,” he said.

Now, the nonprofit is asking donors to support the new auto loan program by establishing a loan reserve fund.

“I have a relationship with First Federal Bank of KC. I trust them, so when I graduate from The Grooming Project, I plan to apply for the car loan program,” Tillman said.

First Federal Bank furthered its commitment to the school’s mission with a $10,000 donation June 16, presented by bank President and CEO J.R. Buckner.

“On behalf of the Board of Directors and staff of First Federal Bank, I want to thank the staff and volunteers at The Grooming Project for giving its students the skills and opportunity to improve their financial wellbeing and that of their families,” Buckner said. “Our bankers wake up each day looking for ways to help people in our community meet their financial goals, and it has been a real treat for our team to help participants in The Grooming Project re-enter the banking system by opening checking accounts and showing them how to utilize online tools to manage their money. We are inspired by their courage to learn a new skill and improve not only their life but our community.”

Kirsch attributes the success of The Grooming Project to many strong partners, like First Federal, who are committed to helping the organization grow and serve more families.

“A $10,000 check is huge,” Kirsch said. “We are so grateful for the partnership with First Federal Bank of KC. It’s not just the money. It’s the partnership, everything the bank has done for us.”

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