Volunteering with Bottomless Closet: Director at Moody’s Uses Financial Service Skills to Helps Working-Poor Women

Tami_s_workshop_1_.jpgby Elizabeth Harrin (London)

“Four Bottomless Closet clients are now homeowners in the New York City area,” Tami Peter says proudly. For those of us who are homeowners, that doesn’t sound like much. But when you understand what Bottomless Closet does – and what Tami has invested to get those four women there – you realize that she has every right to be proud of what they have collectively achieved. Bottomless Closet is a non-profit organization that provides professional clothing, job readiness and post-employment training and coaching services to women on assistance and working-poor women across New York City. The organization supports women in transition by providing career skills and image coaching, empowering them to interview with confidence, gain employment and achieve economic self-sufficiency.

Tami spends up to 20 hours a month volunteering for Bottomless Closet. “It’s important to give back,” she says, “though balancing this with my day job is sometimes a challenge, given that I travel approximately two weeks per month. But I do work it out; one can always make time for what’s important.” Tami’s day job is as a Director, Structured Finance Product Specialist at Moody’s Analytics. It’s a role that keeps her busy. “My day job includes me selling analytical software, data, and valuation services to a variety of Canadian and US institutional clients in 20 states that invest in structured finance bonds,” she explains.

Since 2001 she has balanced this responsible role around her work with Bottomless Closet. “I saw a magazine ad recruiting volunteers for Bottomless Closet,” she says. “It piqued my interest so I called and spoke with the executive director. I wanted to use my financial services and personal finance experience to help other women.”

Tami taught one seminar on budgeting that year and was deeply touched by the Bottomless Closet clients. “It amazed me how a small effort on my part could positively impact these women in a significant way,” she adds. Tami started off teaching one seminar on personal finance in 2001. The response to this was so positive that she went on to develop a year long course comprising of 17 sessions on personal financial management. She became more and more involved and now personally mentors over 20 women. She joined the Board in 2006 and is now its Treasurer.

“All course participants have set personal financial goals,” Tami says. “Scores of women are now budgeting; dozens of women have become completely debt-free – many had been ignoring their debt for years – and more than 40 women have started saving for retirement.” Tami is justifiably proud of the achievements of these women. “I relish the countless stories I receive of both small and major, yet all significant, personal financial triumphs.”

One particular success that Tami was responsible for was the creation of the Debt-Free Bootcamp. “Over the years, I discovered that the number one goal of Bottomless Closet clients was to become debt-free,” she explains. “My approach to the Bootcamp can be described as ‘tough love with a hug’. For those severely in debt, we get on the phone with their creditors, collection agencies, attorneys, etc, and they take responsibility for how they got into this situation. They own up to what they owe and we make a repayment plan.” Sometimes the idea of being debt-free has never occurred to the women that Tami works with. “I help the women help themselves and create a new and improved vision for their lives,” she says.

The Bootcamp spurred another initiative – and this one meant Tami putting her own money on the line. “I personally funded a 1% interest Financial Independence Loan for those women who have demonstrated progress in becoming debt-free and could achieve that goal within 12 months, if they weren’t mired in high interest rate debt,” she explains. For these women, compound interest keeps them stuck in a hole. The Bottomless Closet Board then matched her grant. Three women have now paid back their loans early, including the interest. “I envision that the Financial Independence Loan will continue to expand by obtaining outside sponsors to underwrite this concept,” Tami explains.

All of this has a significant impact on women’s lives. “First and foremost the clients have enhanced self-esteem,” Tami says. “They feel empowered by taking responsibility for their financial decisions having control over their money. They start having larger dreams for themselves and their children. They realize they can envision and achieve a plan for financial security and self-reliance. For those women who have stayed in unhealthy relationships due to finances, this knowledge is their liberation.”

It’s also had an impact on Tami’s life. “My volunteering has definitely influenced the work that I do in my day job and other aspects of my life,” she says. “One of the reasons I chose to work for Moody’s is because it’s a firm that has a culture of philanthropy.”

A few of Tami’s colleagues know about the work she does with Bottomless Closet and she was able to convince the firm’s foundation to generously donate, and to allow other staff time off to volunteer at Bottomless Closet. “My volunteering work at Bottomless Closet has enhanced my professional life,” Tami adds. “Several companies have hired me to lead personal finance seminars for their employees on topics such as budgeting, debt reduction and investing for retirement.”

On top of that, Tami’s friends and family regularly ask her for her presentation handouts to assist them with their finances. “Unfortunately,” she says, “we do not learn enough in the educational system about financial literacy and, unless they learned good habits from their parents, the subject intimidates most people.”

Tami’s work has certainly led to demystifying personal finance for many women, as well as removing the intimidation factor that comes with numbers and mounting debt. “For me, it’s empowering women to help themselves financially and to believe in themselves,” she says. “Each time I volunteer, I walk away with a sense that I received more out of the experience than the recipients did. It is such an amazing feeling to know that you have made a difference in someone’s life. When someone tells you, ‘you’ve changed my life’, how could you not continue to give of yourself?”

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    It would be a nice side note that there are other Bottomless Closets in other cities (e.g. Chicago) that do the same type of work. In case others thought of being involved but didn’t know they could in their own cities.