Our Stories

Crossing the Bridge to Financial Stability in Houston

April is Financial Capability Month! We are celebrating by sharing stories that highlight our financial stability work. 

For more than a century, Houston’s Wesley Community Center has lent a hand to people making their way out of poverty. With a LISC-supported Bridges to Career Opportunities program, the agency has amped up its strategies for helping clients take the reins of their financial lives. One man’s experience shows how it works.

Eighteen months ago, Severo Montoya walked into Wesley Community Center for the first time because he’d heard the agency might help him with support to cover his monthly rent. Today, not even two years later, Montoya has a lot more than that: training in the medical field, a job that pays well and, for the first time in his life, financial stability.

His path didn’t run a straight course, but the programs at Wesley, a Houston nonprofit that has helped families find a way out of poverty for more than 100 years, are designed to support clients over time and through obstacles. “Having to start over again was not easy, and I am not lying when I say I could not have done it without [Wesley’s] help,” Montoya said. “I know my journey is not over, but I can breathe so much easier now.”

Wesley runs a Financial Opportunity Center (FOC), one of a network of more than 80 sites around the country that integrate three core services: employment services such as job-placement and career coaching, financial education around budgeting and credit building and counseling for income supports like SNAP and utilities assistance.

Photo Credit: Cheyenna Brehm
Photo Credit: Cheyenna Brehm

Wesley also runs a special program offered at more than 30 Financial Opportunity Centers known as Bridges to Career Opportunities (BCO), which help adults in low-wage work overcome educational barriers that stand in the way of job training.

LISC provides funding and technical assistance for both the centers and the BCO programs, which are run by community-based groups like Wesley. LISC is a grantee of the federal Social Innovation Fund (SIF) which has provided a $21 million investment over five years for FOCs and an $11 million investment over three years for BCO, leveraging another $80 million in private support.

“The SIF support was a turning point in the program. It allowed us to replicate the model in so many cities and build the body of evidence for this work,” said Seung Kim, national director of LISC’s financial stability programming.

In a study of the outcomes for 40,000 FOC clients—nearly all in the bottom 20 percent of the nation’s household incomes—more than half increased their net worth and three-quarters increased their net income. A 2015 survey of hundreds of BCO clients found the program helped participants find work more quickly, earn more and stay with an employer longer.

Montoya’s story is an encouraging example of how these multiple interventions make the difference. After connecting with Wesley, he began working with the agency’s education coach as part of the wrap-around services offered through the Financial Opportunity Center. He took an eight-week Bridges to Career Opportunities class in the medical field. BCO is a step for workers who need to build their basic academic skills, with coursework that relates to the field they hope to enter.

An income supports coach connected Montoya with rent and utilities subsidies, as well as temporary income, to help support his household while he was in class. During those weeks, he sat down with the financial coach to devise a strategy to achieve long-term financial stability.

“We work really hard to break down as many barriers as possible for our students,” said Samantha Sherman, the director of educational development at Wesley. “Our classrooms are down the hall from the coaches. They pass by every day, and our doors are always open.”

After graduating from the BCO course, Montoya needed to find a job, and with a daughter on the way, quickly. He set aside hopes to have sufficient training to join the medical field, and, with limited employment skills, he moved from job to job, for more than a year.

But because the FOC model encourages relationships between staff and clients, Montoya kept in touch with his financial coach who helped him see how temporary, part-time and seasonal employment would keep him living from paycheck to paycheck indefinitely. So, Montoya grabbed an opportunity for graduates of the BCO program: a scholarship to attend the vocational EKG class at Houston Community College. Again, the agency helped Montoya bridge income gaps while he was in school—with transportation assistance, support filling out paperwork for SNAP and Medicaid, even Christmas gifts for his family.

As the course came to an end, Montoya explored possible career paths with Wesley’s employment coach. After settling on Houston Methodist Hospital as his top choice for a first job, he and the coach tailored Montoya’s resume for a position as a cardiology technician.

He got that job—paying $16.50 an hour part-time—and then another. Montoya now also earns $16 an hour working full-time with doctors with at an organization that provides preventive cardiology services. Montoya’s coaches at Wesley say their client is “all smiles” now, confident that he can accomplish his goals. Said Montoya, “I have a true sense of peace in my heart.” 


Carl Vogel is a Chicago-based writer and editorial consultant specializing in urban issues.