Hundreds of Thousands Of Dollars Disbursed To California Fire Victims

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Seven weels after wildfires devastated Southern California, much of the money raised by credit unions is in the hands of those who need it.

Two of the largest funds established in the wake of the fires were the California Credit Union League Disaster Relief Fund and the National Credit Union Foundation's 2003 California Wildfires Fund. The California league said the two funds received $167,915 in donations from individuals, CUs and other organizations from 13 states.

The California league said it approved 347 grants for $167,900 to CU staff, volunteers and members. The grants ranged in size from $200 to $1,000 depending on family size and degree of loss or damage.

In addition to the disaster relief fund, the California league recently established a post-secondary scholarship program for the dependents of the state's firefighters. The league said it gave $10,000 to the Richard Myles Johnson Foundation as seed money for the scholarships.

Many CUs initiated their own relief programs, especially in hard-hit San Diego County, where three major blazes occurred.

California Coast Credit Union established a $100,000 relief fund. Anyone who was a member as of Oct. 26 who lost his or her primary residence to one of the wildfires was eligible to receive a $1,000 donation. The fund originally was made available to the first 100 members who applied by Nov. 30 and could show proof of their loss.

CCCU CEO Jim McPheters told The Credit Union Journal 65 members applied for the relief donations by the Nov. 30 deadline, and as of mid-December, 61 of those already had received the funds, with the other four in process.

"We extended the program through Dec. 31 because some members just started to receive their mail in early December and first learned of the program at that time," McPheters said. "The people who have received the donations have been most appreciative and grateful."

Because San Diego has a lengthy history as a "Navy town," it is not surprising Vienna, Va.-based Navy FCU established an emergency relief loan program for its members in the aftermath of the fires.

Loren Moeller, public relations manager for Navy FCU, said 11 members have taken out emergency loans for a total of slightly more than $60,000. Under the terms of the program, members could borrow up to $15,000 for up to five years, with no payments due for 90 days and no prepayment penalty.

Moeller said Navy FCU has been contacted by 10 members with mortgages at the credit union. She said seven had damage to their homes, while three suffered total loss.

Cabrillo Credit Union, based in the Scripps Ranch neighborhood north of downtown San Diego that lost hundreds of homes to the Cedar fire, offered members a special "recovery loan" to fire victims. Members who lost their homes were allowed to borrow up to $10,000 at zero percent interest for 10 weeks.

Anne Legg, Cabrillo's vice president of marketing, said the $130-million CU received approximately 25 telephone and e-mail inquiries about the recovery loans, but so far has funded just two.

In San Bernardino, which was hit by two major fires, Valerie Spiro, vice president of marketing for San Bernardino-based Norton Community CU, said no Norton employees lost their houses, but 12 members did. Three of those members had their mortgage loans with Norton, and the CU reduced the interest rate on their loans to zero percent and reduced the payment for six months.

Norton allowed 50 of its members who were affected by the fires to skip payments on their loans for three months. In addition, the CU offered $500 emergency loans to those who had to replace property. Spiro said 20 members had taken out emergency loans. "People seem to be trying to get back to normal," she said. "The fires are not the only topic any more-except for those who lost their house, of course."

Norton also cashed hundreds of checks for Red Cross volunteers who served in the area.

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