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Grant helps women take control of their finances

Two women standing next to each other and smiling
 Gabrielle Blackshear and Toree Stokes

A few short years ago, Gabrielle Blackshear was a single mom struggling to support her family.

Like many young women, she had poor credit and did not understand how to live on a budget or manage her finances. All of that changed, however, when she found Mustard Seed Development Center in Akron.

"It just was a huge turning point in my life," Blackshear said. "The program really helped me get where I needed to be with my finances."

Through Mustard Seed's financial literacy program, Blackshear learned how to build her credit and create a yearly budget. Recently, she was able to get a loan on a brand new car without a cosigner, which she described as a "huge" accomplishment.

"My success is my credit," she said. "I feel so much better about myself … I still am a single mother, but I'm so much happier now because I can take care of my family."

The financial literacy program that Blackshear first attended is designed to help women who want to learn how to manage their finances or who are facing a crisis situation, such as foreclosure. In many cases, women who come through the doors have never learned about money in school or at home, said Mustard Seed CEO Toree Stokes.

"Financial literacy is so important to our clients because they don't get that education in high school," she said. "Many of our clients are emotionally distressed and feel like there's no way out. Mustard Seed is here to help them overcome those problems."

Stokes said she knows exactly what these women are going through because she was once in their position. As a newlywed in the '90s, she went through a difficult pregnancy and was out of work for an entire year. As a result, she and her husband were living on one income, but paying the bills for two.

"I didn't know what to do," she said. "I didn't know how to budget, and I certainly didn't know how to deal with the collection agencies."

Stokes did the only thing she knew how and began researching personal finance. The more she read, the more she realized how many other women were in her same situation. Some of them had lost their husbands and didn't know how to continue supporting their family; others were being taken advantage of by predatory lenders. All of them were in need of assistance and financial education.

"Women think they're they only one (who needs help)," Stokes said. "They're ashamed to ask for assistance."

It was this realization that led to an epiphany for Stokes: Someone needed to start an organization that could help women learn how to manage their money and get out of crisis situations. That someone was Toree Stokes.

"This was a very personal issue for me because I also experienced a situation where I didn't have the funds to pay my bills," she said. "I am so happy to (now) be in a position to help women have a more empowered life."

In 1999, Stokes and her friend Yolanda Parker started Mustard Seed Development Center, named as a reminder that God has a plan for everyone – all it takes is a little faith, the size of a mustard seed. Since then, the center has helped thousands of women take back control of their finances and build a better future.

"It's been very rewarding to see our clients succeed," Stokes said. "I've seen a lot of women learn to budget and pay their bills on time. A lot of them are purchasing a home for the first time."

In order to continue seeing these results, Stokes said it's critical that programs like Mustard Seed receive funding and support from the community. One way they fund their program is through grants from the Women's Endowment Fund. Since 2006, the fund has awarded more than $100,000 in grants to Mustard Seed Development Center to support various financial literacy programs for women. 

"The Women's Endowment Fund has helped us be able to help a lot of women in the Summit County area," Stokes said. "Without the fund, we would not be able to change the quality of life for as many women."

Ultimately, Stokes and her staff hope to change the lives of thousands more women by encouraging them to decide to become financially empowered.

"There is another way," Blackshear said. "You can improve your life; you just have to take the first step. Help is out there."

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