Everyone needs a second of Valerie Hill’s time, or at least it seems that way for the Director of Youth & Family Services at Syracuse Community Connections as she entertains a seemingly endless stream of visitors to her office. Between a constantly ringing phone and the towering stacks of books and papers on her desk, Valerie provides direction on the afternoon’s math activity for the younger kids, signs a stack of staff training certificates, offers encouragement to a new summer camp counselor and talks to a pre-teen about making good choices. To look at her, Valerie Hill is the epitome of a person in charge and at the top of her game, so when you ask her about needing financial counseling services, one of the first thing she says is, “this is not me.”
Like the popular children’s book series, Valerie Hill’s financial challenges can best be described as “a series of unfortunate events.” Always a hard worker, Valerie’s early adult life seemed to go as planned: full college track scholarship, first African-American female to play lacrosse in Division III, two master’s degrees, successful entrepreneur, multiple women-owned business enterprises and investment properties and ultimately marriage and children.
When her marriage began to sour, Valerie gave up her businesses and properties to devote more time to the relationship, but soon found there were bigger problems than time spent at home. After the divorce, Valerie discovered her always perfect credit score in ruins. She lost the family house, which had been only in her name, and her ex-husband took the family car. With such a low-credit score, Valerie found herself unable to lease quality apartments and get a low-interest car loan. While still scrambling to keep life afloat for her and her daughter, both of Valerie’s parents became ill requiring hospitalization and ultimately nursing home care. In another blow, Valerie’s sister passed away unexpectedly leaving Valerie stepping up to cover funeral expenses.
Valerie tried to keep her mounting debt and bills in line, but was soon tapping into her retirement account, depleting her savings while maxing out her credit cards. It became overwhelming. “I knew how bad this must have looked. I made a decent salary; my daughter attends a private school—this isn’t a “poor” story. It felt like I was keeping a horrible secret from everyone,” says Valerie. “I was trying to fix all of it on my own and realized I needed someone else to look at my situation—I needed some guidance.”
Guidance appeared in the form of Thom Dellwo, one of five financial counselors providing free, professional services to city of Syracuse residents as part of the Syracuse Financial Empowerment Center. The Syracuse FEC is one of more than 25 financial empowerment initiatives across the United States made possible by funding through the Cities for Financial Empowerment (CFE) Fund, an initiative of Bloomberg Cities. The professionally-trained counselors work with individuals and families to reduce debt, increase credit scores and establish savings.
Valerie Hill knows she is, once again, moving in the right direction. Her debt is decreasing, and she is back to saving money for unexpected emergencies. The Syracuse native wants to share her story, so others don’t think they need to keep their challenges to themselves.
“I want people to know that it’s ok to ask for help,” says Valerie. “And while it’s hard to keep your spending in check and make sure to always save, it’s not as hard as you think.”
Any Syracuse resident can make a free, confidential appointment with a Financial Empowerment Center counselor by calling or visiting: