In addition to providing affordable financial services and superior member service, credit unions are committed to the promotion and spread of quality education. Whether it is in the form of financial literacy or general education funding, credit unions value and support the pursuit of higher learning. For Altura Credit Union (Riverside, CA) whose formation and foundation are based in the educational realm, doing all they can to help members become more informed consumers and improve their community through educational outreach.
Altura got its start as a credit union for school employees back in 1957 and has never forgotten those roots. As Carol Kramer, Altura spokesperson, explains, education and education-related causes are a major focus of the credit union’s community outreach.
Currently the largest credit union headquartered in Riverside County, which is about 60 miles east of Los Angeles, Altura has near 93,000 members. The credit union also now has a community charter, making it open to anyone who lives, works, worships or attends school in Riverside and San Diego counties and selected cities in San Bernardino and Orange counties in California.
With its education-centered background, one of Altura’s most visible outreach efforts is the Altura Scholarship Foundation, which has been awarding college scholarships to local graduating seniors since 1993. “In 2012, Altura awarded 42 scholarships of $1,000 -- since its inception, the credit union has awarded $344,000 in scholarships,” reported Kramer. Altura also helps local schools by sponsoring events, providing volunteers for events and funding programs for both students and teachers.
In addition, Altura takes part in numerous local causes, events, non-profit charitable and business organizations, and is a member of eight different Chambers of Commerce. Their annual Fill-a-Backpack Drive includes donation stations in all branches, as does their annual Holiday Canned Food Drive, now in its fifth year. “We also have set up special donation accounts for Members, staffers and the community to contribute for specific events such as the Indonesian Tsunami in 2004, 2011 Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, and the 2010 Haiti Earthquake, which garnered the highest donations, collecting $42,000 for the American Red Cross,” added Kramer.
In order to carry out many of these meaningful community service projects, Altura looks to its employees for support. “Altura employees are a valuable resource for the communities in which we do business -- in their spare time, many employees volunteer for local causes and bring those causes to the attention of fellow employees,” said Kramer. Among these are filling backpacks for needy kids returning to school, walking for cancer, hiking mountains to raise awareness of rare diseases, raising funds for local medical centers and more.
Altura’s strong commitment to the communities in which they “live, work and play,” is exemplified in the ways the credit union continues to “give back” to its communities even during tough economic times, and that continues in new ways. Altura recently launched a checking account product designed to help people get back on their feet financially. “This new product addresses a local economy still lagging in its return to normalcy, and is designed to help the individuals caught in its wake,” explained Kramer. The new Reliance Checking Account comes with a regular Visa Debit Card, online banking, mobile banking and eStatements.
“We are offering a new beginning to people by providing a tool for recovery,” said Jennifer Binkley, Altura Chief Operating Officer. “The Inland Empire, where Altura is headquartered, has been slow to bounce back from the economic downturn. Many local residents have been left with credit problems and a negative credit history. Traditional banks turn them away, not just for loans, but also when applying to open a checking or savings account. Can you imagine having no access to ATMs, no resources for paying bills, no relationship with a financial institution?”
Altura’s Reliance Checking is specifically designed to assist individuals who have financial difficulties, unpaid closures and negative history reported to ChexSystems. A negative report usually results in a denial to open a new account.
“This is an area where we want to assist,” Binkley added. “Credit unions were created to do exactly this kind of thing. Our Reliance Checking is a temporary solution that can evolve into a regular Altura account. This checking account will have an immediate impact on people’s lives. It will make managing the financial portion of their lives a lot easier and provide a path to a traditional account.”
Using the Reliance Checking Account, Members can recover and rebuild their financial status, and become eligible for other checking accounts and financial services that Altura offers. It comes with a Visa Debit Card that looks exactly like every other card Altura issues – no red flags to embarrass cardholders. It also comes with access to an educational program and support to help members reestablish themselves.
After six months of positive account activity, and after having paid off an outstanding checking account-related debit (as reported by ChexSystems), Reliance Checking account holders are eligible to move to the next level in financial recovery – the Renew Checking Account. This account has no minimum balance requirements, allows Members to write personal checks, and adds ATM deposit access. After six months of positive Renew account activity, members become eligible for any Altura checking account.
“With these tools, people can establish or reestablish a relationship with a respected, stable financial institution. And Altura is happy to be that institution,” adds Binkley. “This isn’t something we had to do, but something we believe is the right thing to do. To put it simply, it’s needed and it will help.”
Even during the economic downturn of recent years, Altura and its members have maintained a symbiotic relationship, supporting one another and dealing with the ups and downs. Altura has continued to provide its members with an alternative to traditional profit-oriented banking, and, like other credit unions, exists to help people and its community.
In recent years, the area of Southern California where Altura is located was particularly hard hit, with unemployment topping out at 15% at one point. At the same time, the credit union was experiencing the impact of this downturn, even closing several branches and converting others to ATM only. However, during this time, everyone seemed to be working together for the greater good. Members were understanding about the operational changes and still gave what they could toward Altura’s community efforts. “It was heartwarming to see people dig deep to help those even less fortunate,” said Kramer. Likewise, Altura stayed true to their promise of exceptional member service. The credit union had to make some tough decisions to reign in operating costs but still focused on serving their members’ needs. They also continued to give to the community however they could in order to maintain their primary commitment to improving people’s lives through education.
“Altura is pleased that the sacrifices of the past few years have enabled us to regain the strength needed to continue assisting our members, now and in the future, but none of it would be possible without our members and their ongoing support and loyalty,” added Kramer.By Cyndi Cohen