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United Way aid helps Idahoans reach goals

BOISE – When Shon Vanhoozer handed over his tuition check at Boise State, he felt like he’d completed a long-term group project.

Vanhoozer, 32, is the first person in the community to graduate from United Way’s Individual Development Account program, or IDA.

Vanhoozer spent more than a year working his way through the program, which is designed to help working Idaho residents with modest incomes establish financial security, The Idaho Statesman reported. The program helps participants save for one of three things: buying a first house, getting a secondary education or starting a small business.

“Those are the things that create stability in the long run,” said Melissa Nickell, who oversees the IDA program as director of community impact investment at United Way.

Participants must have a stable income, make regular deposits in a savings account, meet regularly with a caseworker and complete 10 hours of financial education on topics like maintaining good credit and home ownership. In exchange, United Way adds $2 for every $1 that the participants deposit over the course of the program.

The added contributions max out at $4,000. The money comes from a five-year federal grant for $500,000 and matching funds from donations.

Without the tuition help, “We’d be in trouble, or at least in debt,” Vanhoozer said. “Tuition is pretty high these days.”

Vanhoozer, a newlywed, hopes to study biology while continuing his job testing printers at Hewlett-Packard. His wife, Huidan Vanhoozer, is studying for a degree in accounting.

Shon Vanhoozer says the IDA program taught him that he’s frugal.

“I’m more responsible than I originally thought,” Vanhoozer said. “It was funny, at first, making deposits. None of the bankers knew what was going on. ‘IDA? What are you talking about?’ They had to go get their supervisors.”

The program is still small, with 117 Idaho residents participating. That’s an increase from only seven in January, and program officials say there’s enough funding for more.

Marcia Munden with Catholic Charities, which is working with United Way on the program, is Vanhoozer’s IDA case worker. She said the program targets working people with defined goals who could use a helping hand but may be ineligible for other assistance programs.

“This reaches those folks who are at the edge of falling either way – either building assets and being productive, or falling the other direction and struggling, needing other kinds of assistance,” Munden said.

IDAs started appearing in the early 1990s, generally created by nonprofit organizations or local government departments, but for-profit groups, like banks, also have created IDA programs.

Thirty-three states currently have laws on the books governing IDAs. Participants can stay in the Idaho program between six months and two years, Nickell said.

“The goal is to lift families into a more stable and self-sufficient situation, so that after two years they will have a livable wage.”