Shortly after my retirement from the military, my wife Elaine (Rovazzi) and I joined a group trip from Little Falls in their pilgrimage to its ”sister” city of Myjava, Slovakia. In addition to being an exciting cultural experience, the trip introduced me to many of the families and friends of Elaine’s youth to whom she had referred so fondly.
But to me, this trip to the ancestral roots of so many of Little Falls current residents left a bigger message; one of a “sister city” and a “sister culture”: This sister relationship was based on more than just familial lineage: It was grounded in a simple friendship and respect that transcended the years, the language barrier, and the thousands of miles.
Since returning to Central New York and settling down in the homeland of more recent generations of Rovazzis and Lennons, I have seen many other signs of such outreach emanating from Little Falls; one of these is the Micro-loan program.
It all started with a chat with Mike Evans, one of Elaine’s high school classmates. He told me of an initiative that Little Falls had embarked upon a few years before to offer those in the city experiencing unexpected financial challenges a chance to “step back from the edge” with a one-time interest-free small loan of up to $2000.
This was not another grant program, but rather a locally-financed and locally administered Micro-loan Fund designed to assist those who might not qualify for loans from traditional financial institutions. To qualify, a local applicant needed to demonstrate 1) a specific need for the loan, such as a medical expense, utility repair, work-related transportation expense, or educational/certification expense, and 2) the ability to fulfill a personalized two-year repayment plan, and thus sustain this revolving fund.
I was so struck with the concept and its potential applicability to my home region just “a couple of valleys away” that I invited Mike to present the program to members of the Chenango United Way in Norwich in early January.
Like Little Falls, my home region of Chenango County has experienced economic challenges in recent decades with the loss of major employers such as Proctor and Gamble and Norwich Pharmacy (Pepto Bismal, Norwich Aspirin, etc.) However, the county still has internationally recognized industries such as Chobani Yogurt, Golden Artist Paints, and Raymond Manufacturing (producers of world-class material handling equipment). And we still have some leading insurance and financial institutions (Preferred Mutual, NBT Bank-originally “the Bank of Norwich”), and dairy-related enterprises. So we, like Little Falls, are not about to give up…
The Executive Director of the Chenango United Way immediately saw the power of such a program and how it might offer a “buffer” for those work-force families earning a paycheck, but facing the monthly struggle of making ends meet. (The New York State United Way call this group, which generally earns slightly more than the poverty threshold, “ALICE”, or Asset-Limited, Income Constrained, Employed). In Chenango County, ALICE alone represents almost one-third of our population.
We had just agreed to explore how we might set up a Chenango County version of the Micro-loan Fund when COVID struck. Jobs were lost, hours were cut: Our neighbors who had been juggling their finances before were more vulnerable than ever. Many who continued to work or were able to return to work were now only one catastrophe from falling out of the workforce and into poverty. Others were giving up on that educational or certification program that could help them climb to the next rung of the employment ladder.
We didn’t know what the future held but anticipated that there would be a spike in demand when the assistance programs slowed or stopped, so we kicked our effort into hi-gear. Mike’s guidance during our weekly Zoom meetings was invaluable, and we periodically reached out to other members of the Little Falls Micro-loan Fund, such as Ralph Renzulli for insight into specific process issues.
That Little Falls spirit of respectful collaboration is what we in the military called a “Force Multiplier” and it was on full display this spring and summer; turbo-charging our programmatic efforts. A couple of weeks ago, we issued our first loan to a highly-qualified working family. From concept to execution in a matter of just over seven months-all while operating under the meeting restrictions of COVID!
I can’t speak highly enough of the can-do, collaborative, and creative spirit that I continue to equate with Little Falls: A spirit that enabled your city to adopt another “sister”.
The theme of the Chenango Micro-loan Project is “Together We Rise”, and Little Falls is living proof.
Peter S. Lennon
Director, Chenango Micro-loan Project