Tom Parks Teaches Financial Literacy to Teens
“I feel guilty about getting more out of this experience than I put into it.”
What made you decide to become a volunteer?
My parents raised us understanding that giving back to the community was an unequivocal expectation. I specifically chose Make A Difference – Wisconsin because I see how financial hardship negatively affects so many people in our society and this program attacks the problem before these young adults have an opportunity to develop bad financial habits. Plus, it’s a lot of fun to see how sharp high school students are when it comes to this subject matter.
Describe the organization where you volunteer and the work they do.
Make A Difference – Wisconsin is a nonprofit organization that recruits and trains volunteers to teach financial skills to high school students through a classroom program called Money Sense and a one-on-one mentoring program called Money Coach. A model of community collaboration, the organization has partnered with 85 high schools and hundreds of volunteers from the local business and professional community to reach more than 47,000 students over the past nine years.
What kind of help do you provide?
I volunteer in several capacities. First and foremost, I teach financial education to students in high school classrooms and have been fortunate to be able to make time to deliver several programs in a given school year. Make A Difference knows that I am willing to work with students who are considered challenging or at-risk, so I am often invited to deliver the program at schools that are not as popular to other volunteers. In addition, the organization has enlisted me to be a speaker at volunteer training events, offering new volunteers insight into delivering the curriculum through an experienced volunteer’s perspective. I have also been open to new volunteers shadowing me in the classroom. Finally, it has been my pleasure to serve on the Make a Difference – Wisconsin Education Committee, working to make the curriculum relevant and effective for students.
How long have you volunteered?
I signed up to volunteer in May 2009, attended training in the fall of 2009 and jumped into my first classroom experience soon after. I have presented over a dozen programs at 10 different schools, 8 of which have been in the city of Milwaukee. Make A Difference honored me as the recipient of the Lloyd Levin Difference Maker volunteer award in 2013 and then invited me to represent the organization when Make A Difference – Wisconsin received the Governor’s Financial Literacy award in 2014.
What surprised you the most about volunteering?
How engaged the students are. There is a lot of negative press about MPS in particular and it has been very encouraging for me to be engaged with the students to see with my own eyes what really goes on beyond the headlines. Most of these young adults have a ton of potential.
When you think about your paid jobs, how is a volunteering different or the same?
Financial wellness education is a big part of my job so there are actually a lot of similarities. There is a huge void in our education system when it comes to basic financial skills and it manifests itself throughout all parts of our society.
Has it changed your view of this community in any way?
I think I am less judgmental about people who get themselves into precarious financial positions. Most people can understand the basic concept that you shouldn’t spend more than you earn. But then you get that credit card and the next thing you know you’ve gotten yourself into a cycle that is hard to extract yourself from. That’s still not an excuse for behaving irresponsibly but it does make me more sympathetic. I believe that education is the key to liberty. If nobody ever teaches you basic financial skills I think you should be cut a little slack for your mistakes.
Has volunteering had benefits for you?
Totally. Half the time I feel guilty about getting more out of this experience than I put into it. I have learned more from the students than I could ever teach them.
What are you proudest of accomplishing in your volunteer work?
Every once in a while I come across a student who clearly has no interest in the subject matter. Getting those challenging students to open up and engage is the most rewarding part of my volunteer experience. I remember a time I was working with a class where students remained uninterested in the curriculum. After my fourth visit, a student made a point of coming up after class to tell me “I would just like to point out that I think we had a really good class today. I can’t wait to see you next week.”
Would you recommend volunteering to others? If so, what would you tell them is the benefit they’d get from volunteering?
First of all I would say to anyone who is pondering a volunteer engagement that if you are doing it to benefit yourself you will fail. Miserably so. Ironically, if you focus your volunteer efforts for the exclusive good of the people you are helping you will become more personally enriched than you can possibly imagine.
How would you suggest someone begin if they want to volunteer?
Take something that you love to do and find an organization that can facilitate you sharing that service or skill with people who need it. If you like reading, tutor someone or read to little kids. If you like math, help people file their taxes. If you like carpentry, help someone fix up their house. I promise you this: there’s something you really love to do that someone else could benefit from. Just figure out what that thing is and find the person who needs it. After that experience you will be happier than you’ve ever been before. Then you’ll be hooked.
Make A Difference – Wisconsin is currently recruiting volunteers for the 2015/16 school year, with a goal of presenting financial education to close to 8,000 high school students. Visit and complete a volunteer application in time for the upcoming September 21st volunteer training session.
To learn more about Make A Difference – Wisconsin, go to www.makeadifferencewisconsin.org.
To find additional volunteer opportunities in our community, go to www.volunteermilwaukee.org, a service of the