PATERSON LITERACY CLASS IS MONEY IN THE BANK
PATERSON -- When Miryam "Gaby" Rinkerman started developing adult education programs for the Paterson Community Technology Center, she identified some urgent needs in Paterson's Hispanic community. One was computer training.
Another was financial literacy -- how to create a budget, build a credit history and avoid predatory lenders.
Rinkerman, the center's director, labored over a curriculum for each one. When the classes began, the computer class was overflowing, but the financial literacy workshop was almost empty.
She decided to combine the two, and three years later, "Computación y Finanzas" -- computers and finances -- is one of the most popular courses at the center, which is an extension of Passaic County Community College.
"After the first class, everybody gets hooked," Rinkerman said.
There was some initial resistance. "People don't think they need it until they're really in trouble," she said. Many come from countries where they didn't trust the banks and are still operating with cash.
"They have the money under mattresses, or they go to check-cashing places," Rinkerman said. "Some people were very proud to say they didn't have any credit cards -- 'I pay cash.' I told them, in this country, you don't exist."
The students seem to be taking those lessons to heart. On a recent rainy evening, 15 people filed into a classroom on Memorial Drive where a projector screen displayed the lesson of the day -- "Your Credit: What You Need to Know."
Before the lesson began, Rinkerman and instructor Julio Villavicencio tested the students with a fake credit card offer. A table displayed four digital cameras and a handful of applications, and Rinkerman announced that the students could win a camera just for applying.
Nobody jumped at the offer. Right away, a man asked what the annual fee was. A woman asked about the interest rate. Another complained that she's still paying off the last one she canceled.
"I'm going to tell you the truth," Rinkerman said. "There are no cameras, no credit card. We just wanted to see if you'd fall in the trap. Wherever you go, there are people offering little gifts if you apply for a credit card."
Villavicencio was impressed that nobody was enticed this time. "You've learned to say, 'No, no, no. Explain it to me better,'" he said.
Sonia Cadavid, a small-business owner in Paterson, is not a stranger to credit, but she has been delighted with the first few sessions of the class.
"I'm 56, and I had never done a budget," she said. The computer training made her feel comfortable enough to set up a Web site for her Avon sales. "All I knew was how to turn on the computer."
"I was afraid of the computer," said Martha Patricia Velez. "And in the first few classes we've had, I've learned what a computer is, what is Windows, how to open and close windows, how to position my hands. ..."
Banking was also foreign to Velez, a mother of three who lives in Paterson. She learned how to choose a bank account with no hidden fees. "These are things we never pay attention to because our husband is in charge," she said.
The classes include a mix of men and women from different ages and backgrounds. Most are Hispanic, but one woman attending the current session is Albanian and had learned Spanish from her job at a Laundromat. The class costs $40, which covers materials -- the students go home with copies of the lesson plan each time, plus worksheets and additional literature. Rinkerman estimates 600 people have completed the hybrid computer/finance training since it began in 2005.
For students, the biggest selling points of the class are the teachers and the fact that it's taught in Spanish. "They do it in your own language, and they have so much patience," said Graciela Magarino, 50, of Paterson. "They don't move on to the next topic until you understand."
Magarino said she signed up for the computer skills because she was feeling frustrated and uncomfortable at her job at an insurance agency.
When she gets home from the class, Magarino is excited to show her two daughters what she has learned, she said. She has also been sharing the lessons with her boss.
"She wants to take the class now, too," she said.
Reach Heather Appel at 973-569-7113 or firstname.lastname@example.org