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Garden Home woman helps young people learn about money matters

Melody Thompson asked a classroom of nine high school seniors what they would do with a

$1 million inheritance from a rich uncle.

The students' list included buying a car and a house, shopping sprees, entertainment purchases, investing, starting a business, traveling, buying and selling real estate, buying a sports team and putting a portion of the inheritance away in savings.

'Now how many of us really have a rich uncle?' she asked the class.

When none of the seniors raised their hands, Thompson pointed to the list on the white board.

'If it's a priority, you can make any of these things happen,' she said. 'If you learn how to handle and manage your money right, you can have whatever you want.

'By starting small now, you can put a little bit away and watch your money grow. It's all about having priorities and working toward achieving your goals.'

Thompson, a Garden Home resident, serves as the executive director and co-founder of Financial Beginnings, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating and equipping youth and young adults with the tools needed to successfully manage their personal finances.

Financial Beginnings offers four financial literacy programs for students in middle school and high school, young adults and parents.

During the free sessions in schools, colleges and community centers, Thompson teaches students about how to manage personal bank accounts, use credit wisely, the importance of insurance and the value of savings and investment.

'I'm only giving them an introduction to banking, credit, insurance and savings in the limited two hours I have on each subject, but I want them to be aware of this information,' she said.

'I want to give them the necessary tools so that when they are introduced to these things in the future, they will have the knowledge to gather more information and become savvy consumers.'

Thompson first realized there was a need to help young people get started on the right foot when it came to their money management while working in collections to put herself through college.

Her work helping others who had fallen behind on their obligations made her aware of the need for personal finance education and allowed her to see how the lack of financial knowledge could lead to heartache.

'I saw people who had no clue what they were getting into with these loans,' she said. 'The problem was much greater than just not understanding credit and loans.

'People needed a basic understanding of how to track their spending, make a budget, balance their checkbook, pay their bills on time and earmark money for savings.'

They also needed more in-depth education about how to save and manage their earnings while setting short- and long-term goals.

Seeing the devastation caused by poor financial decision making combined with her desire to help others become financially responsible prompted her to major in finance at Portland State University, earning both a bachelor's and master's degree in business administration.

Thompson teamed up with Kari McClellan in 2005 to start developing a program that would connect industry professionals with students in classrooms before they graduate.

'We had a vision of what was needed,' Thompson said.

With a personal finance class no longer required for high school graduation, they knew it was important to work with teachers, parents and schools to get young people started on stable financial footing.

Financial Beginnings launched its innovative program last spring, reaching more than 800 students in schools across the region. The organization is on track to share its financial expertise with 2,000 students in 2008.

'I love being out in the classrooms, especially with high school students,' Thompson said. 'They really listen and that's exciting.'

'It's an awesome program,' said Karen Shea, an alternative education high school teacher at the Miller Education Center in Hillsboro. 'A lot of our students are already living on their own, teen parents or nearing graduation. Melody is teaching them valuable life skills.

'She teaches them the value of saving, how interest works, all about banking and how to build good credit. She talks at their level and uses examples they can relate to. She is able to answer the questions they have and really motivates the class.'

For more information about Financial Beginnings and its mission to improve financial literacy among youth, visit www.financialbeginnings.org.