In a time when many people feel big banks have left them in the cold, with high fees and little human interaction, community-based financial institutions such as 1st Choice Credit Union are a warm haven. The Atlanta-based credit union delivers traditional banking services, from free checking accounts to loans ranging from $300 to home mortgages. The focus is on educating its 9,000 members, an estimated 60 percent of which are African-Americans, and uplifting the community at large.
Daniel Caldwell, interim CEO/ president, says that as a credit union, the not-for-profit motive allows him to help people, more than just conduct mass transactions. “I get to have contact with a lot of members, given our size,” says Caldwell, who joined 1st Choice in 2008. “To see the expression on their face when they get loans after being turned down by other institutions—they feel so happy and relieved to get that chance.”
The credit union started in 1946 precisely for its loan function. It was created as Hospital Authority Credit Union to serve employees of Grady Hospital, Atlanta’s only level one trauma center, in the heart of downtown. (It acquired its new name in 1999, when it extended services to a few other local organizations.) “In the 1940s, employees would often ask for advances on their paychecks,” Caldwell says. “Grady’s accounting folks suggested to management to start a credit union to give $500 loans to the employees instead of pay advances.”
To this day, 1st Choice continues the program, called Quick Cash Loan, with six or 12-month repayment terms. Caldwell says these small loans, with interest rates around 12 percent, keep the community from resorting to payday lenders such as title pawns, which charge an average of 30-35 percent in interest.
“Some folks are trying to rebuild their credit or have no history at all,” Caldwell says. Another program provides loans to members with no credit or “colorful credit” who would be charged high fees and interest at other institutions, he adds. These “credit-builder” loans are offered at six percent interest rates and paid within a year’s time, as well.
Financial literacy is at the core of every service at 1st Choice. Close to 1,000 people attend financial education classes there, a majority enrolling in the first-time homebuyers workshop (partially subsidized by a housing and urban-development grant). In the pre-purchase seminar, homeowners learn the steps of buying a home all the way through closing.
Through various types of credit counseling, members receive private reviews of their credit scores, assistance with financial decision-making, savings, and related advisement. Caldwell says his staff tries to schedule counseling sessions even when those who apply for credit and are denied. “Knowledge is going to keep you from wasting your money. If you don’t understand how to save your money and what to do with it, you’re going to make poor financial decisions,” he says.
Partnering with the Atlanta Business League, the credit union teaches financial literacy to teens. “They go through the program five days a week—two days of class and three days of professional training in corporations around the city,” Caldwell says. The credit union sponsors one teen intern through this program, as well as one high school intern and one college intern through the African-American Credit Union Coalition. “We have the college student doing teller work or other site work, opening new accounts, doing transactions, and assisting other managers,” Caldwell says.
In addition to its financial services, 1st Choice executes a number of philanthropic projects. For example, staff volunteers participate in various food, clothing, and donation drives to benefit the homeless throughout the year. Further, the institution contributes $2,000 annually to support a nursing student’s tuition, through the Grady Foundation. In honor of its work, 1st Choice is a multiyear winner of the Dora Maxwell Social Responsibility Award, given to a stellar credit union. The bank has placed first in Georgia for six straight years and second in the nation within its asset category.
With around 13 staff members, 1st Choice maintains a family-like atmosphere. “A lot of members come to the teller window, and they won’t do a transaction with any other teller than their favorite. If she’s on vacation, they’ll say, ‘That’s ok; I’ll come back tomorrow,’” Caldwell says. With the credit union’s vast menu of community services, and its knack for trust-building, it’s no wonder members would be eager to return tomorrow, and beyond.