Lower Valley Credit Union Honored at GAC for ‘Service to the Underserved’

Lower Valley Credit Union executives celebrate after winning Credit Union Times’ Trailblazer Award at the Governmental Affairs Conference. On hand to accept the award (from left): Rita Gutierrez, vice president of lending; Josh Beck, vice president of finance; and President/CEO Suzy Fonseca.

“We know their struggles firsthand.”

That’s how President/CEO Suzy Fonseca describes the relationship between Lower Valley Credit Union and the predominantly Hispanic population it serves in Sunnyside, Wash. It’s a simple statement, but one that speaks volumes. Because while Fonseca has impressive statistics she can share about loans to first-time borrowers and other financial services, it’s the bond with members that truly sets Lower Valley apart.

And it’s why the credit union was honored this week by Credit Union Times magazine with its Trailblazer Award for Outstanding Service to the Underserved. The award, which was presented during the Governmental Affairs Conference in Washington, D.C., honors credit unions that promote change by creating and implementing innovative strategies and solutions.

“Each year, we seek out the gold standard in credit union management and service for recognition in our Trailblazer program,” said Credit Union Times Publisher Sarah Snell Cooke. “And each year, when we look at the nominations that have come in, we find it hard to choose.”

But it wasn’t hard for Scott Butterfield, principal of the consulting firm Your Credit Union Partner, to nominate Lower Valley, because he has seen firsthand the impact that the credit union has had on the community it serves.

“Partnership invitations are coming in from national, regional and local groups, each wanting to partner with LVCU to increase outreach efforts and community impact,” Butterfield said. “LVCU’s financial results prove that credit unions can do well financially when they stick to credit union roots and help people of modest means. Most importantly, LVCU is impacting the quality of life in meaningful ways for thousands of consumers. Truly, they are creating hope and access to a better tomorrow.”

More than 88 percent of Lower Valley’s members qualify as low-income, and a significant number make their living primarily in agricultural work, often seasonal or uncertain. Sunnyside’s predominantly Hispanic population has traditionally lacked affordable access to credit, financial education and other basic financial resources. According to joinbankon.org, 17.7 percent of the community’s households are considered “unbanked” – more than double the national average of 7.7 percent.

Lower Valley has turned those statistics into a commitment to serve members and potential members through a series of unique programs and services. Financial education starts early, and at some point, almost all Lower Valley members meet with a credit union representative who can get a better understanding of where they are financially and what they need to start doing to improve their circumstances.

Since 2010, Lower Valley has originated more than 400 loans to first-time borrowers and approximately 1,900 used-car loans to limited-income members, including 385 loans to members who lacked a reportable credit profile within the past three years. On a more basic — and perhaps more important — level, Lower Valley makes sure that its members feel comfortable dealing with a financial institution. Spanish-speaking members aren’t referred to another department for help; seamless bilingual communication is available to them at all times.

“Lower Valley’s focus on providing both financial education and affordable financial services to its largely lower-income membership made it this year’s Trailblazing credit union,” said David Morrison, senior staff reporter at Credit Union Times. “When making this award, Credit Union Times seeks credit unions that combine teaching members what they need to do with providing affordable products and services which help them do it. LVCU deserves the award and our congratulations.”

In accepting the award, Fonseca paid tribute to her staff — and to the bond they’ve formed with their members and the community.

“You can say that the bond that is developed with our members is unmatched, not just because we take time to visit with them, but also because our efforts are sincere,” Fonseca said. “We know their struggles firsthand. We know what the trenches look like, because we’ve been there, too. We’ve been to the orchards and harvested the fruit. We’ve seen parents and neighbors struggle to gain their citizenship, much less fair credit of any type.”

“Above all, we recognize that dignity and respect is critical in any relationship-building,” Fonseca said. “Without sincerity, it just simply does not work.”

Questions? Contact Gary Stein: 503.350.2216, gstein@nwcua.org.

Posted in Advocacy News, Awards, CUNA.