Growing up below the poverty line in Riviera Beach, Florida, LaShea Reaves never learned to manage her money. Throughout the 1990s, his family relied on public aid. She almost lost her house twice.
So in 2016, nine years after graduating from college, she took $ 5,000 – half of her savings – and started 8 Cents in a Jar. The Apopka, Florida-based nonprofit aims to help students and their families break the cycle of poverty.
Reaves says his organization has helped 2,238 students pay off debt, open bank accounts, buy cars or homes, and generate more than $ 50,000 in new wealth.
“Our sweet spot is students who can feel left out,” she told CNBC Make It.
On Wednesday, Reaves was honored as one of CNBC’s financial literacy leaders at a virtual town hall event featuring US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. But for Reaves, not so long ago, she was forging her own path to financial stability.
An eye-opening conversation about personal finance
At age 14, Reaves lost his mother, throwing his family into emotional and financial turmoil. Along with his father and three sisters, the family spent years below the poverty line – $ 20,128 for a family of five at the time, according to the US Census Bureau.
In 2002, Reaves decided to make a fresh start in college. The problem, she says: “I wasn’t even accepted to college.”
Instead, she says, she hitchhiked with friends at Florida A&M University, went straight to the admissions office, and applied on the spot. After being turned down, she told admissions officials about her challenges and motivation – and the university changed its mind.
She graduated with Distinction in 2007 with a Business Degree and a Minor in Economics.
While still a student, Reaves says, her father died in hospice care, leaving her solely responsible for the family’s finances. She took out a new student loan to help pay for her father’s funeral and her own expenses. In 2005, she had $ 62,000 in debt.
At her job as a part-time bank teller, she says, she had a revealing personal finance conversation with her boss.
“I told her I wanted to buy a house,” she says. “And he said to me, ‘Well, what’s stopping you?'”
A battle worth fighting
Reaves quickly began to seek personal finance advice from his colleagues at Hancock Bank. His first priorities: repay his debts and save to buy a house.
She is still paying off her debt – currently at $ 49,000, she says. The house, however, quickly became a reality.
“After working three college jobs and becoming a finance junkie, I bought my first home as a graduation gift,” Reaves said. “For the first time in my life, I was no longer receiving public aid.
Almost a decade later, she decided it was time to give back. Reaves says she now spends 70 hours a week volunteering at 8 Cents in a Jar, while working full-time as vice president and head of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion program at First Horizon Bank.
“I wake up at 4:15 am every day and volunteer until around 8:00 am,” she says. “Then again from 5 to 10:30 p.m. most days after my full-time job, plus weekends.”
The time is well worth it, says Reaves – one of his students is on the way to becoming the first person in his family to own real estate.
But the work, she notes, shouldn’t be necessary. Only 21 states require high school personal finance classes, according to data from Next Gen Personal Finance. Three other states offer the courses, but do not require them for graduation.
During the town hall on Wednesday, Cardona stressed the need to fill this gap. “When I talk to students now, they talk about the need to learn financial literacy in a practical sense,” he said.
For Reaves, this will be easier said than done: especially in underserved communities, students tend to have different individual needs. Yet, she says, it’s a battle worth fighting.
“Every financial literacy journey will be different,” she says. “There has to be care and attention to everyone’s needs, and that’s what makes us unique.”
SUBSCRIBE: Money 101 is an 8-Week Financial Freedom Learning Course, delivered weekly to your inbox.
TO VERIFY: Single mom earns $ 10,000 / month on Outschool: “I could never have made as much money as a regular teacher” via Grow with Acorns + CNBC.
Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Tassels.