In a Nutshell: Credit unions not only help fuel business growth and community development, but they also work to keep individuals on the path to financial prosperity. First Financial FCU performs that dual role in Maryland’s Baltimore and Carroll counties, even as the Covid-19 pandemic transforms ways of doing business and interacting within the community. The credit union was founded by teachers in 1953 and continues to deliver essential financial education and scholarship resources to area students during the pandemic. For supporting local businesses, individuals, and educational institutions, First Financial FCU earns our Editor’s Choice™ Award for Community Commitment.
More than 1 million people live and work in the diverse urban, suburban, and rural settings that make up Maryland’s Baltimore and Carroll counties. In many ways, the area is a microcosm of the U.S., with extremes of wealth and poverty and everything in between.
Many agencies, nonprofits, and businesses work in the region and are dedicated to ensuring opportunities for all who call it home.
And since 1953, the team at First Financial FCU has been doing its part to make Central Maryland a better place to live, work, and learn. Much of its work focuses on schools and students — and for good reason.
“We were founded by a Baltimore County school teacher, and the county still represents about a third of our membership,” said First Financial FCU Youth Outreach Manager Cindy Jones. “It’s so important for us to give back to the communities we serve.”
The First Financial FCU of today is a far cry from the institution that began in 1953 with $5 stored in a cigar box. Now, it operates eight branches located in its service area and manages more than $1 billion in assets. The credit union often uses the slogan #bettertogether on social media, which symbolizes its continued commitment to charitable giving, volunteerism, and its work in education.
Although the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic altered how the First Financial FCU team dispenses support, its dedication is as strong as ever. For stepping up to support students, educators, and essential workers during the pandemic, First Financial FCU earns our Editor’s Choice™ Award for Community Commitment.
Working on Behalf of Educators and Students Since 1953
Along with its eight working branches, First Financial FCU operates seven student-run branches — which were forced to pause due to the pandemic. Those branches are among the many ways the credit union interacts with the community and helps schools and teachers prepare students for the future.
“Before Covid-19, a lot of what we were doing was very hands-on, including financial literacy classroom presentations, participating in college fairs, mock interviews, and college-prep boot camps for schools that are part of the credit union. We also work directly with social studies, business education, and career readiness teachers,” Jones said. “Overall, during the past school year, we gave a total of 156 financial literacy classroom presentations that reached approximately 6,500 students. We sponsor and partner with Junior Achievement for programming that reached an additional 4,000 students.”
The mock interviews that take place within career readiness departments at many area schools help students prepare for that first step into the real world, Jones said.
“It’s just a nice experience,” she said. “If you think back to your first job interview, having the opportunity to practice ahead of time may have made all the difference in the world. Having someone provide you with honest feedback will help to make the best first impression.”
Individuals who participate as interns in First Financial’s student-run branches use the knowledge and skills that they learn through the internship to become responsible money managers and young adults. The experience working in a student branch sometimes results in permanent employment at the credit union during college breaks; or after degree attainment.
“Many of our student-run branches are in some of the more economically challenged areas we serve,” Jones said. “And now we have seven former student interns who have graduated from college and work for us full time. And I would say that all of our interns have turned out to be outstanding employees.”
Transitioning to Remote Resource Delivery During the Covid-19 Pandemic
First Financial FCU also offers financial support for education, and the credit union’s extensive scholarship program helps top performers in dozens of area schools achieve their higher education goals. That can help tremendously considering how the burden of student loan debt dampens prospects for so many American college graduates.
The credit union awards $3,000 to top graduating seniors in each high school it serves, with scholarships totaling $156,000 going out to 52 individual recipients in 2019-20.
“It’s an extraordinary program and gives back to our community. We look forward to it every year,” Jones said.
The credit union personally recognizes scholarship winners at its annual meeting. The event was held virtually this year. The pandemic has transformed much of First Financial FCU’s work in schools and in its own operations.
“Post-Covid-19, a lot of what we do has gone to online learning,” Jones said. “We pushed a lot of our financial education resources out to teachers to ensure they have the resources they need for their students.”
Mock interviews went remote as well, and offered a learning experience for both students and credit union staff, as well.
“The students got a lot out of it, but we learned a lot, too, as we were able to practice our new tech skills with Zoom and other tools,” Jones said.
The team also offered financial literacy presentations through Microsoft Teams, a platform used predominantly in area public schools. And Covid-19 continues to transform the ways all members of the credit union do business.
“It’s helped to highlight the convenience of our digital services, which are more important than ever,” Jones said. “More of our members are using our online portal to join and apply for loans.”
First Financial FCU: Working Together for a Better Future in Baltimore and Carroll Counties
First Financial FCU continues to demonstrate that together really is better in Baltimore and Carroll counties. In large and small ways, the credit union works on its own and with partners to support essential workers and people in need, as it has all along.
“What’s nice during trying times is that we’ve just continued to give back to the community,” Jones said. “We’ve given $102,000 so far to various organizations including the Maryland Food Bank, sent lunches to groups of caregivers and cafeteria workers who are outside every day.”
On the business side, First Financial has provided guidance on loan relief options and extended support to members who may be struggling.
“We’re allowing people to defer loan payments based on situations that might be going on,” Jones said.
The credit union continues to operate its extended hours call center to offer help to members who may prefer a personal approach as opposed to going online.
“Anything we can do to safeguard our members and help them during this time, that’s what we’re trying to do,” Jones said.
Plans for the 2020-21 school year are still in flux as summer draws to a close in Maryland, and Jones doesn’t entirely know what the future holds for area students and teachers. But she said she’s confident that First Financial FCU will be ready for whatever happens.
“Over the summer, we’ve been working on revamping our financial education information to ensure our presentations are relevant, up to date, and as eye-catching, informative, and interesting as possible,” she said.
It’s just another of many ways First Financial FCU encourages a cohesive response in a potentially chaotic situation.