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Nonprofit provides escape from financial ruin

MercyCorps helps one woman get a new beginning
by: Merry MacKinnon, Betty Jo Austin said her life was in shambles until MercyCorps Northwest, a nonprofit micro-enterprise program based in Portland, stepped in and loaned her enough money to get back on her feet and to start a new business selling a mix-and-match line of clothing. Staff also helped Austin organize her finances, start a savings account and complete a business plan.

Before Betty Jo Austin got a loan from MercyCorps Northwest, she had been living off of car title and payday loans.

'To make it short and from my heart, I was coming from a lot of broken pieces,' said Austin, a former North Portland resident who now lives in a Gresham apartment complex for seniors.

'MercyCorps gave me back my life,' Austin said.

Best known for its international humanitarian assistance, Portland-based MercyCorps has a nonprofit domestic micro-enterprise program, called Northwest Loan Fund. It promotes economic development in a six-county Oregon-Washington area, including Multnomah, Clackamas and Clark counties.

Several years ago, Austin, a school teacher and business woman, had founded a cosmetology school that specialized in African-American hair styling. Called Ms. B.J.'s Academy For Hair Design, the school was Austin's dream. She invested all she had trying to get her school up and running, she said. But, though she had leased a site and had students lined up, at the 11th hour, the final funding fell through.

'I'm a true entrepreneur,' Austin said. 'I risked everything on that school.'

After losing all she had, her life was in shambles until an acquaintance told her about MercyCorps' loan program.

'I heard about it from word of mouth,' Austin said.

She called and left a message. MercyCorps Loan Officer Anthony Gromko called back and set up an appointment. Austin qualified for a loan.

MercyCorps provides loans at 12 percent interest, as well as business education, to low-income, minority, women, refugee and immigrant entrepreneurs who can't secure a bank loan, either because of poor credit or because they're a startup business.

Although MercyCorps Northwest loans range from $500 to $50,000, the average amount the nonprofit loans out is $10,000, Gromko said.

'Anyone who walks through the door who can't access capital through a bank is welcome,' Gromko said. 'Together, we determine if the business is feasible, because we don't want to put people further in debt.'

Since 2001, MercyCorps Northwest has made about 130 loans totaling $1.3 million.

'We fund across the board,' Gromko said, adding that about 95 percent of clients successfully pay back their loans. 'Small artisans, food carts, bakeries, restaurants, book and clothing stores, plumbing, contractors - it's all over the map.'

Gromko said that a lot his clients are Russian immigrants. Trillium Artisans, a Lents-based showroom for local crafts people is also a client.

'We're here to help anyone who wants to move themselves up to become bankable, to provide food on their tables,' he said.

With her loan from MercyCorps, Austin was able to pay off her car and payday loans and to buy a line of clothing to sell at home parties.

'It was just enough to get my new spring collection,' Austin said, showing off a sample of the mix and match apparel.

'I was able to clean up some old debt, open up a savings account and re-establish my credit,' Austin said. 'Anthony helped me set up my books and do a business plan.'

And with the income from the clothing sales, Austin hopes to someday open up that cosmetology school.

'Now, I'm going to get my school,' Austin said. 'MercyCorps - that name is so appropriate.'

For more information about MercyCorps Northwest visit www.mercycorpsnw.org.