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Person to Person

Operation HOPE’s No. 1 counselor offers guidance as someone who understands

By James Mitchell

Page 12

Crystal Nickson didn’t become a nonprofit agency’s top financial counselor just because she knows about accounting or tax law. Education only goes so far without the practical knowledge of what clients are going through. “How else do I say it? I grew up around what I’m facing every day,” Nickson said.

It wasn’t just the poverty, which she experienced at the rawest levels while growing up “super poor” in Detroit. Her family had struggled, and she’d been homeless for a brief period before a personal epiphany set her on a stabilized path.

“I had to learn about money,” said Nickson, now 36. “I didn’t say I had to get a job, but I had to learn about money.” That was the singular goal she took to Baker College 10 years ago. Nickson approached her courses – while working two jobs and tending to a new baby – with a clear and practical ambition.

“I didn’t go because I loved numbers,” Nickson said. “It was strictly to not be poor anymore.”

That’s the connection between “Coach Crystal” and her clients at Detroit’s first HOPE Inside Center, a certification that couldn’t be learned from textbooks.

“I’m not judging them,” Nickson said. “Empathy is tops for me. The only reason I know how to do this is I’ve done it; I went through the same thing.”

Hope Found Inside

Launched in May 2015, the HOPE Inside Center is a nonprofit collaborative launched by Operation HOPE, Fifth Third Bank and the city of Detroit’s Bank On Detroit initiative. Byna Elliott, Fifth Third Bank’s community and economic development director, said the push for financial literacy and credit counseling needed to reach the people most in need.

The Northwest Activities Center on Meyers Road was an ideal venue as the city’s largest community center that welcomes more than 300,000 people each year. people felt comfortable there, elliott said, and putting people at ease was a priority more than a perk. The need was reflected in a population that elliott said carried misconceptions about banking in general.

“Sometimes there’s a stigma about banks,” Elliott said. potential customers needed to learn that their credit rating could also impact job prospects and insurance rates.

“The goal is not to say ‘no’ to people,” she added. “It might just be ‘not yet.’”

Mostly, they need to hear it from someone they could relate to. For that, said Ryan Mack, Operation HOPE mid-Atlantic market president, there was little doubt that Nickson was the perfect counselor to launch the effort.

“The reception had a lot to do with her personality,” Mack said. “It kind of snowballed from there. It was a perfect storm of how we wanted to launch.”

Been There, Done That

The goal was to succeed where other initiatives failed in reaching their target audience.

“Traditional methods of getting the information to people haven’t worked,” Mack said, citing as evidence the disproportionate number of Detroit residents who don’t have bank accounts and instead make use of high-fee check cashing or payday loan services.

“You can’t walk a block in some neighborhoods without seeing those places,” he said. “people say they do it for convenience, or they don’t think they can open an account. There’s nothing wrong with being ignorant, but there’s something wrong with staying ignorant and not fixing it.”

Enter Coach Crystal, whose well- and hard earned accounting degree was coupled with practical experience and a desire to give back. She often volunteered her services at tax time and earned a local reputation that made her the first and best candidate for HOPE Inside’s counselor position.

The numbers confirmed the need. HOPE Inside met first-year goals within six months of opening. Nickson said she sees between 20 and 30 potential clients each week, about half of whom come back for more.

“Some people aren’t ready yet, but that’s okay,” Nickson said.

Those who were ready have posted remarkable results. Some have improved credit scores by 100 points within a month. And upgrades of 50 or more points have become routine courtesy of a back-to-basics program of paying off debts through installments, opening a checking account and other efficiencies. Future plans include branches at Wayne State University and Detroit Medical Center, more workshops and seminars, and finding more counselors like Nickson to connect with clients.

“There’s always a way to get this done,” Nickson said. “There’s this big push for financial literacy, but I don’t care how much money you throw into a neighborhood, you need someone people can relate to. “

And there’s the empathy, an understanding that can’t be taught, only earned. Nickson said it’s not unusual to see herself when hearing client stories.

“I’ve been there and done that,” Nickson said. “It’s a little selfish, but maybe I can find a young Crystal and save her from going through that. Maybe I’ve got my own agenda.”