Credit unions aim to benefit communities and members

Three credit unions share initiatives on how they are contributing to their communities and the state

Five Star Credit Union supports its community with gifts to local colleges.

Five Star Credit Union was founded in 1964 in Cedar Springs, Georgia, and was chartered to serve the employees of the Great Southern Paper Co. Today, the nonprofit financial institution is headquartered in Dothan and serves more than 55,000 members across Alabama and Georgia. Alabama residents are eligible for credit union membership if they live, work, worship or attend school in eight southeast Alabama counties, and membership is open to individuals who live and work in 15 counties in southern Georgia.

As credit unions like Five Star ease membership restrictions, they are finding new ways to get involved and invest in the larger communities they serve.

“I think credit unions, because they are member-owned and, really, locally owned in that respect, have always had an affinity to our communities,” says Patrick La Pine, chief executive officer at the League of Southeastern Credit Unions and Affiliates.

Among the many ways different credit unions impact their communities, you’ll find scholarships, fundraising and wide-ranging community work.

In 2022, the Five Star Credit Union Foundation awarded three $10,000 scholarship grants to three colleges in communities it serves — Wallace Community College in Dothan, the College of Coastal Georgia in Brunswick and Southern Regional Technical College in Bainbridge, Georgia. The grants provided tuition assistance for incoming freshmen for the 2022-2023 academic year.

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Five Star also runs two promotions annually through its Facebook page — 5 Days of Back to School, which takes place just before the beginning of the school year, and 5 Days of Christmas, which runs for two weeks prior to Christmas. Prizes include a television, an outdoor stove and a video game system. 

“It’s a way to have fun, get some interaction and do something for our members and non-members during two stressful times of the year,” says Mike Bridges, vice president of marketing and communications at Five Star. “It’s a huge hit.”

And for the past two years, Five Star has collaborated with JOY FM (WIZB-FM) for its Home Free promotion, which provides free rent or mortgage for a year for a nominated station listener with Five Star providing the sponsorship money.

“The purpose of Five Star Credit Union is to brighten the financial future of the communities it serves,” says Robert Steensma, president and CEO of Five Star. “Members own Five Star Credit Union. It is natural for us to find as many ways as possible to give back to our member-owners that make a real impact on their lives. We want to live our purpose statement.”

Listerhill Credit Union was founded just more than 70 years ago when seven employees at Reynolds Metals decided to form a cooperative that would address a growing issue of predatory lending to vulnerable plant workers. Today, it is the seventh largest credit union in Alabama with $1 billion in assets and serving 100,000 members in northwest Alabama and south central Tennessee.

The Muscle Shoals-based credit union supports its communities through a variety of fundraising and education programs, as well as donations and scholarships. The Listerhill Foundation funds a Kicks for Kids program, which collaborates with schools in Alabama and Tennessee to provide new name-brand athletic shoes for students during the school year. Through the Listerhill Cares program, credit union employees are encouraged to volunteer their time at local charities and nonprofits in their communities. Each year the credit union asks members and employees to complete a charitable contribution survey identifying the fundraising opportunities they care about the most. Those efforts have led to regular annual support for the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. In addition, Listerhill promotes higher education through three foundation scholarships — the Charlotte Y. and Albert E. Williams Scholarship at University of North Alabama, the Listerhill Employees Credit Union/UNA Alumni at University of North Alabama and the Joseph Wade Endowment Scholarship at Northwest-Shoals Community College.

Alabama Credit Union employees donate to Secret Meals for Hungry Children, which provides meals on weekends to children.

Alabama Credit Union (ACU) is a nonprofit financial cooperative founded in 1956 to serve the University of Alabama. Today, ACU has 34 branches throughout Alabama and North Florida.

ACU created its signature charity, Secret Meals for Hungry Children, in 2008 to ensure children in Alabama and Florida who rely on free and reduced breakfasts and lunches during the school week also have access to food on weekends. Through a partnership with local food banks, the Secret Meals program provides nutritious meal packs for students, discreetly placing them into their backpacks on Fridays.

“Thanks to our wonderful donors and volunteers, we are currently serving 2,167 students every weekend in Alabama and northwest Florida,” says Nicole Fulgham, community involvement coordinator at ACU, adding that credit union employees plan several fundraisers each year to cover the program’s operational costs. “In 2022 alone, ACU employees raised $154,315 for Secret Meals. Not only are employees a driving force behind fundraising, they also pack the meals and deliver them to schools each week.”

ACU also participates in several local events and fundraisers for a variety of causes. ACU is a top sponsor for the American Heart Association and has a large presence at the annual Tuscaloosa Heart Walk. ACU employees also participate in Junior Achievement, a national organization that offers lessons in financial literacy, work and career readiness, and entrepreneurship for young people. ACU also provides 15 hours of paid leave for each of its employees to use volunteering for a charity of their choice. The initiative contributes thousands of volunteer hours annually and helps build connections between ACU employees and their communities.

In addition to broader community outreach, another major focus for credit unions, large and small, says La Pine, centers on providing financial education to members and non-members alike. “Credit unions put a lot of emphasis on financial wellness and how we can help individuals acquire financial education and help them build the skills to be able to learn better saving and spending habits so they can live a better life.”

Combined, La Pine continues, those efforts embody the core mission of credit unions: “People helping people.”

Katherine MacGilvray is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. She is based in Huntsville.

This article appears in the March 2023 issue of Business Alabama.

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