Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Get Your Money Straight, Girl!

Vickie Elisa, who also is division director of marketing and business development for the DeKalb County Board of Health, recently received Redbook magazine's Strength and Spirit Award.RENEE' HANNANS HENRY/STAFF

Financial advice for struggling women:
Tucker resident speaks from experience in her Smart Women & Money workshops

Many of the women who come to hear Vickie Elisa talk about money aren't who you'd expect to see at a financial planning workshop.

The audience at one of her free, day-long sessions on budgeting, debt reduction and retirement investing might include former or

current prostitutes, drug users and victims of domestic abuse.

"It's different than [personal finance expert] Suze Orman. She's not talking to crack addicts," Elisa observes dryly, adding, "not that that's my whole audience."

No, but it is what distinguishes the Tucker resident and DeKalb County health official's work from that of other financial advice gurus.

In the 10 years since she founded Smart Women & Money, Elisa has preached financial literacy to an estimated 40,000 people across the U.S. and as far away as the African nations of Ghana and Nigeria.

Her work in the program, part of the Georgia chapter of the HIV/AIDS awareness group Mothers' Voices, recently earned her Redbook magazine's Strength and Spirit Award honoring individuals who are "making big changes in our world, one small step at a time," according to the magazine's Web site.

Elisa, 49, is still awed by the honor, given to her at a ceremony in New York last October. She was presented by actor Dennis Leary and given the kind of star treatment that, she says, "I never could have dreamed of when I started this."

Twenty-five years ago, Elisa says, she couldn't even have conceived of a program like Smart Women & Money. But personal circumstance taught her a lesson.

Back then, the Georgia native and Spelman College graduate was newly married and, it appeared, moving on up. But excessive spending buried the couple in $30,000 of debt, helped bust up their marriage and literally drove Elisa into the street: she lived in her car for a time.

It took six years to clear up the debt, thanks to extra jobs selling magazines and folding laundry in hotels, in addition to a full-time marketing position in state government.

Though she eventually got back on track financially and established a career, she never forgot her own struggles, their cause, or what it took to get out from under.

"I can honestly say, been there, done that," Elisa says.

Another personal event, the loss of her brother to AIDS, prompted Elisa when she was still in her 20s to help launch the state chapter of Mothers' Voices. In time, she became president of the national organization.

In the course of that work, Elisa saw a link between economics and health, specifically the corrosive effect of financial need on health choices. Women, she saw, might work as prostitutes or stay in abusive relationships merely to survive financially and to take care of their children.

From that idea sprang Smart Women & Money, which she saw as a means to help troubled women find a path out of poverty and social problems to relative prosperity and healthier lifestyles. The classes, she says, provide mostly basic information because they are tailored to the needs of her audience.

One observer says the workshops work wonders.

"Information is power and so these workshops are empowering to these women," says Gloria Tate, who runs a media buying business and is a member of the Mothers' Voices board of directors.

"This is sort of a euphoric experience for them," Tate adds. "They're suddenly in a setting with other women who have similar experiences, and that provides them a system of support. Many of the women in the audience have never been exposed to that kind of knowledge."

Elisa conducts 25 to 30 of the 6- to 8-hour workshops, which are free of charge, each year. They are held in social clubs and at local libraries before a hundred or so people, and also in civic centers and large auditoriums before hundreds and even thousands. Her audience is mostly women, but men do show up on occasion, if only to check up on their wives or girlfriends, she said.

Though many in attendance have serious financial issues, there is a mix of incomes and social backgrounds. Elisa says half her audience earns $50,000 annually or more.

"I get a lot of women in Atlanta who are 50-55 who've been downsized and they're at the age where no one wants to hire you," Elisa says. "They say, 'I never thought it would be me.'"

There are also the "first wives," she says, women from well-to-do households who are now divorced and are looking for a bit of financial advice.

All are welcome in Elisa's sessions, although it is her reach-out to the disadvantaged and the abused that earned her the Redbook honor and nationwide attention.

Because Elisa has a full time job as division director of marketing and business development for the DeKalb County Board of Health, her work with Smart Women & Money is a volunteer effort. And quite an effort it is.

"It is exhausting," admits Elisa, a single mother of one child.

For that reason, Elisa says she's training others to conduct the workshops in her absence. That would allow her to spend more time with her daughter.

Still, she adds, "I don't see myself ever stopping doing these workshops. I learn something every time I do one."source
I must give it to Vickie...she's voyaged where few others dare too. It's admirable for her to take the time to help women rebuild their lives...esp those who are most overlooked by society.

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