Lahela Williams' passion for financial education came from experiencing her own money management struggles. Raised in a traditional Hawaiian family were money was not discussed openly, combined with a lack of personal finance education, led Lahela to fall into debt later in life. Today, she uses her own lessons learned to teach youth and adults about financial literacy through her work at Hawaiian Community Assets, a non-profit HUD-approved Housing Counseling Agency and Native CDFI serving the State of Hawaii.
As the Program Coordinator, Lahela facilitates financial education classes for adults and youth across the state. In 2009, Hawaiian Community Assets developed its own financial literacy curriculum – Kahua Waiwai © Opio Edition, a culturally relevant place-based financial literacy curriculum that bridges native Hawaiian traditions with modern financial concepts. The curriculum, developed for ages 13 to 24, is accompanied by PowerPoint presentations and hands-on activities. In the "Crisis Bean Budget Game" students are given a scenario and budget using beans instead of cash. They must shift their beans around to afford unexpected events such as a car breakdown.
The bulk of the youth program is facilitated in partnership with the Holomua: GEARUP on the Leeward Coast Project through the University of Hawaii, West Oahu Campus. A cohort of 560 students, set to graduate high school in 2017, is taught a different financial literacy concept each year. "This year it's banking," explains Lahela. "Previous topics include understanding the economy and wise spending, budgeting and saving." Last year, 72 classes were taught to X students.
Aside from the youth programs, Lahela also facilitates a Trainer Certification Program for individuals, teachers and community members to teach culturally relevant place-based financial literacy workshops in their own respective communities. The training program involves a 16-hour training commitment during which they work through the entire Kahua Waiwai curriculum and discuss best practices in the development and delivery of youth financial literacy programming. In the past five years, Hawaiian Community Assets has trained over 275 individuals.
"In Hawaii, cultural relevance is particularly important when it comes to teaching financial literacy," says Lahela. One example in which she incorporates cultural traditions is the "Planning a Luau" budgeting activity. Families are taken step by step through planning a luau, a traditional feast integral to the Hawaiian culture. They match needs with resources and discuss what to do in emergency situations – like when an Aunt forgets to bring the Poi, a native Hawaiian dish. The same concepts are then applied to budgeting for overall monthly expenses.
One of the biggest challenges Lahela has encountered is battling the formalities of the financial education system and funding the programs. "To combat this challenge, we have started communicating with teachers directly," Lahela explains. "There is currently no one funding for youth financial literacy in Hawaii." Lahela constantly solicits different banks and partner organizations to purchase curriculum in order to provide it to schools and community groups at no cost.
"My goal for the youth program is to build a generation of financially literate young adults," says Lahela. "I want to prevent them facing the same challenges I did, by making them more aware." Lahela hopes that her efforts give youth and adults a strong base knowledge to help them make wise money management decisions. She is already providing this base knowledge to her two children, ages three and five. She saves her change at the end of every day and gives it to her children to count and save. For her own finances, she uses post-it notes to remind herself of her financial and life goals before spending.
Lahela Williams was one of Practical Money Skills' Innovative Educators sponsored by Visa Inc. to attend the 2014 Jump$tart Coalition National Educator Conference. "The conference was incredible," she says. "I came home reinvigorated, with new resources, games and budgeting tools. I felt appreciated as a financial literacy educator and I'm genuinely grateful for the opportunity."
Practical Money Skills would like to commend Lahela Williams for her ongoing efforts and commitment to financial literacy at Hawaiian Community Assets in Honolulu, HI.