If I had told myself as a 16-year-old that I would be working in anything financially related, I would have been confused and probably disappointed. I was a theater nerd, not a math nerd.

I had never looked at my credit report before working at Prepare + Prosper.

I joined Prepare + Prosper (P+P) a financial manager in our tax clinics a half dozen years ago. As soon as I started talking to customers in the clinic, I learned just how much tax returns and credit reports bring out the intimate details of someone’s life—financial markers that correlate to significant life events. You learn about a person’s work, their family relationships, their marriage or divorce, an education they’re paying off.

In talking with customers about their lives, the barriers they face, and how hard they work, I fell in love with financial capability, and realized that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.

In Money Mentors—the program I now oversee as the financial capability manager at P+P—we pair people with volunteer financial coaches to work toward their financial goals. I get to see the impact of the program every week as participants share their successes with each other and their coaches, as well as the challenges they encounter.

I remember one participant who was living in a hotel with her husband and child for 200+ days, almost a year, on a week to week basis. Their credit was not good, and that was why they couldn’t get an apartment. They came to Money Mentors to build their credit and save up a deposit for an apartment. I remember the day this participant came in and told me, “We got approved for an apartment.” It was a one-bedroom apartment, and she was so excited that they would have their own place. They no longer had to pay weekly (which is so much more expensive than an apartment), and she said, “This is more space than I’ve ever had before, and my kid is going to have their own bed. I can buy meat that doesn’t have to be cooked the same day because I have a refrigerator.”

This is the perfect example of how expensive it is to be poor. Because their family didn’t have a refrigerator, she had to go to the grocery store every day and they had to consume everything they cooked, no buying in bulk or eating leftovers.

When she entered Money Mentors, she was so driven and completely changed the life course of her family through making changes and addressing barriers in her finances. Her coach, Audrey, was a former participant in the program, and I feel inspired by them both.

What I would love for people to know is just how financially savvy people with low-incomes are.

I think there’s a perception out there that the reason people are in hard situations are because of lack of education or bad choices, that people are simply unaware of what the “right path” is. I’ve seen master budgeters, people who had low income and had their purchases planned to the dollar, and their circumstances were largely beyond the control of their choices.

People will make the best choices they can for themselves and their family, but it doesn’t change the fact that the deck can be stacked against them, and alone, they can’t always overcome their barriers.

Instead of just applauding people for beating the odds, we need to change the odds.

At Prepare + Prosper, we file a lot of tax returns, we pull a lot of credit reports, and we open a lot of bank accounts. But beyond that, we don’t shy away from the hard work of addressing the greater systemic issues that trip people up so we can change the financial landscape for the better.

Claudia shared her story during the program at P+P’s annual Tee Off For Taxes Golf + Bean Bag Tournament on June 24, which raised $47,575 to support our programs (thank you to the 120+ people who joined us!). If you’d like make a donation, visit our donate page for the various ways you can do so. Kara McGuire, Money Mentors volunteer, also shared her story at the event. We’ll share that next on Spark.