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  • To Discover What You Have to Give, Put Yourself There

    Posted by on February 12, 2018

    Have you ever felt a calling to help, but you weren’t entirely clear what form that help should take? It’s a puzzle many credit union leaders confront. That’s because the credit union movement has rallied around the collective battle cry of “people helping people.” While most everyone working in or leading a credit union is aware of the mission, quite a few wonder, what exactly does “people helping people” look like in our cooperative? How can we live out the industry’s mission in our community? Who needs our help the most and how do we find them?

    The answers are clearer for some than others. Yet, even those with a solid giving-back plan in place often discover even more ways to contribute after they begin. The key, according to LiFE Federal Credit Union (LiFE FCU) CEO Dustin Fuller, is simply to put yourself in the place you believe you’re needed. The rest, he insists, usually happens naturally.

    Take Fuller’s recent credit union-sponsored mission trip, for instance. Fuller and LiFE FCU’s former chief lending officer (now CU Evolution CEO) Deke Alexander had a crystal clear vision for how their credit union employees could impact the lives of some of the world’s poorest people. Modeling their outreach after traditional church-sponsored mission trips, the pair gathered a group of employees and credit union members together and organized a mission trip of their own.

    Fuller and Alexander had traveled to the Dominican Republic before, so they had an intimate understanding of the acute need for access to clean drinking water in many of the villages there. The plan, then, was to mobilize their group around the installation of water filters in two villages. As the group went about making their plans for the trip, one of the soon-to-be missionaries had an idea. A LiFE FCU business member, he is also a doctor who owns and operates Total Eyecare, a vision clinic in LiFE FCU’s hometown of Denton, Texas. What if, the doctor proposed, we bring eyeglasses along for the village elders, many of whom are likely experiencing loss of vision as they age? Everyone agreed it was an excellent idea, so they packed a suitcase full of glasses and brought it along to the Dominican Republic.

    The five-day mission trip was, as Fuller describes it, “an awesome experience that did some amazing things for the hearts of employees and members.” By the time the group was ready to head back to the U.S., they had installed two LifeStraw filters that were producing enough clean drinking water for 400 people in three villages. And, they had outfitted 72 elders with reading glasses.

    Even more exciting, however, were the unanticipated ways the group was able to impact the lives of the villagers. As they moved about the people and the environment over those five days, they discovered three other, absolutely unexpected, ways they could impact the lives of the people they came to help.

    The first surprise came as their van was leaving one particular village. From inside the vehicle, the doctor spotted a young girl sitting alone in front of her family’s home. He asked the driver to stop so he could go and talk with her. As it turns out, the girl had trouble seeing because one of her eyes wasn’t focusing properly. The impairment also affected the way she looked, and she was being teased by her schoolmates. The doctor had with him a lens he believed would help. When the little girl tried on the glasses, her eye immediately responded, straightening out instantly. “Her little face just lit up,” said Fuller, who witnessed the moment. “And her mother… you should have seen her. She hit her knees, bawling. She had never seen her daughter’s eyes straight in her entire life.”

    The second surprise came out of a conversation the LiFE FCU missionaries were having with a few of the village pastors. The topic was how to help people in these desolate villages develop their own healthy economies. The group began to talk about the cooperative financial model and how supporting them in the build of a community-based financial network could work. They also discussed the development of a micro-lending pool to finance a motorcycle. If equipped with a crate or two, the villagers could sell their now-clean drinking water in nearby villages. The income could be pooled and used in the case of a health emergency, to finance additional motorcycles or for any other needs that came up. According to CU Evolution’s Alexander, the elders in the village were excited about the concept and are beginning to work toward bringing the vision into reality. LiFE FCU is also looking forward to supporting them as they develop the micro-lending network.

    Lastly, the group learned that pastors in nearby villages were forced to travel 10 hours every month to get the proper training they needed to support their villages. If they had mobile devices, however, they would be able to participate in training sessions digitally, staying close to the people in their villages while also learning what they needed to become even more adept at serving them. Fuller called back home to another of LiFE FCU’s business members, SNAG Management, and asked if there was anything they could do. The member gave an emphatic yes, and shipped off five iPhone 5s to the village pastors within a week.

    What was so special about each of those three moments, Fuller points out, is that they could never have been predicted. They happened as a natural outgrowth of the group being physically present in a space and being open to the opportunities that presented themselves.

    “The pastor at our church often says, ‘You have to go through to grow through it,’” said Fuller. “What he means is you have to experience first-hand how the people you want to help are moving through their days. And it’s not just about experiencing the poverty; it’s about experiencing how the people live and then discovering how you’re uniquely gifted to help.

    “Too often, in our personal lives and in business, we get so wrapped up in the way things have always been done,” continued Fuller. “The same is true for giving. Unless we look out at the horizon and think about exploring something new, we can’t grow. We have to go through it to grow through it.”
    As credit unions and other organizations ponder how they may be able to have a positive impact on their communities this year, it may be wise to strategize by physically moving into a new space. Maybe it’s holding strategic planning sessions alongside a local church in an underserved area of town or hosting a financial education session at a shelter. By getting into a different space, you may discover entirely new ways to give back in 2018.

    Alexander acknowledges that “putting yourself there” can be scary. But, he says, acknowledging the fear and pushing past it is worth the effort. “The first time I was approached about going on a mission trip, I didn’t know if I wanted to go. It seemed like an incredible amount of work. I didn’t know the language. I wasn’t comfortable with the environment. Mostly, I didn’t understand how I was going to be able to contribute or what I even had to give. But I did it, and it changed me. I just had to sit there and let the people impact me. It’s not what you know, it’s how open you are to the experience.”

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