Center for Strong Families Helps Clients “Earn It, Keep It, Grow It”

Earn it, Keep it, Grow it.” This is the motto at the Center for Strong Families, a United Way of Pierce County initiative that helps families elevate their economic situation through an innovative two-pronged approach. Offering both employment coaching and financial counseling, the Center for Strong Families helps its clients get a bird’s eye view of their financial picture. By looking at both sides of an economic equation, the program provides clients tools to help grow their careers and confidently manage their income.

While its client base varies, the Center for Strong Families focuses its efforts toward assisting “A.L.I.C.E.” families, which stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. A.L.I.C.E. families are those who live above the poverty line, but whose income still may not be enough to cover their basic needs. An A.L.I.C.E. family’s circumstances can vary – they may live paycheck to paycheck, lack emergency savings, or their rising costs may be beginning to eclipse their wages. A 2016 study by the United Way of Pierce County reveals that 31% of families in Pierce County fit that definition. And while the cost of living in Pierce County continues to skyrocket, that number is only expected to grow.

Lynn and Silke
Lynn Willis (left) and Silke Bone (right) help clients assess their employment and finances in tandem at the Bethel Center for Strong Families. Photo credit: Kaitlin Armstrong

Part of the Center for Strong Families’ goal is to help alleviate financial stress that A.L.I.C.E. families face. “Our goal is to help them get to a better place,” explains Silke Bone, the Director at Sound Outreach’s Bethel Center for Strong Families site. One of several sites launched by the United Way of Pierce County in partnership with organizations such as Goodwill and Sound Outreach, the Bethel Center for Strong Families helps fill a critical gap in under-served areas. Located near Spanaway Elementary School, the site came about as part of an effort to make services more accessible to families attending the Bethel School District. As Silke explains, “The whole goal was to bring services to the clients – get services closer to them so they don’t have to travel to Tacoma.”

The Bethel Center for Strong Families consists of a two-woman team. Director Silke Bone, also an accredited financial counselor, helps families assess their finances by creating budgets, reviewing credit reports and encouraging them to set financial goals. Employment coach Lynn Willis helps clients tailor resumes and cover letters as well as think about their long-term wage progression and what kind of employment they ultimately want to pursue. Together, they are their clients’ coaches, cheerleaders and accountability partners. “It’s about building honest relationships,” explains Lynn, “It’s also about encouragement and celebrating people.”

Center for Strong Families Spanaway
Thank you notes from clients adorn the walls of the Bethel Center for Strong Families’ Spanaway site. Photo credit: Kaitlin Armstrong

Both women agree that a key to the Center for Strong Families’ success is its comprehensive approach. “We’re a whole person concept, and a whole family concept,” explains Lynn. And she adds, “We’re a no judgment zone.” Which is important, since their work can get into sensitive subject matter.

Lynn and Silke know that it’s not always easy to discuss finances, and they help clients navigate these vital conversations by breaking things down step-by-step. They start by giving clients a financial health assessment and making sure they are connected to any income supports they qualify for. From there, Lynn and Silke help clients consider the factors unique to their situations, from whether they should consider refinancing a vehicle to looking for more local employment options to cut down on commuting costs.

“The whole picture is always overwhelming,” says Lynn, “so we look at it one step at a time.” She adds that they help clients take an honest view of their situation and answer the questions, “How can you do better? Where can you grow?”

Strong Families Partnership
A partnership between Sound Transit and United Way of Pierce County brings critical financial services to Spanaway. Photo credit: Kaitlin Armstrong

Since launching in June 2017, the Bethel Center for Strong Families has served 91 families and been able to increase services from once a week to Monday-Friday. They’ve administered over 600 financial counseling sessions, 500 employment coaching sessions and helped clients raise their credit scores by an average of 35 points.

But for Lynn and Silke, the most important changes can’t be measured in numbers. “The touch point for us is the behavior change,” says Lynn. By getting a comprehensive view of where they’re at financially, they see their clients walk out with strong habits and feeling empowered to make the best decisions for their individual situations.

The Bethel Center for Strong Families is located at 215 166th Street S, Portable 5 in Spanaway. For more information or to schedule an appointment, call 253-719-3609 or email silke@soundoutreach.org. To learn more about other Center for Strong Families sites, you can also visit the United Way of Pierce County’s webpage.

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