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In 1970, during her off hours, New York City teacher Joy Cousminer helped organize what is now Bethex FCU so the members of a poor community in the Bronx could have access to affordable financial services.

For the next 35 years-20 of them as a volunteer-she has been dedicated to helping this CU grow from a tiny institution serving single parents, immigrants and low-income families to one with $10 million in assets and 10,000 members. While its FOM is citywide, the majority of members are in the South Bronx, which ranks last in nearly every indicator of the city's wealth, income and social standing.

For all of her efforts, Cousminer, today CEO of the credit union, has been given the industry's highest honor, the 2006 National Credit Union Foundation's Herb Wegner Award for Individual Achievement.

"Joy's unique power to persuade any- and everybody to do something to aid her in her endeavor to provide affordable financial services to the members of Bethex separates her as a leader of leaders," said Kelly V. Schermerhorn, CEO of CES Credit Union, Inc, Vernon, Ohio, who nominated Cousminer for the distinguished award. "There is no deposit or loan too small, no such thing as a minor service, and no member who cannot be helped in some way through Joy's efforts."

Schermerhorn was among many whose nomination letters described Cousminer as everything from a friend, teacher and pioneer to a guiding light and vigarous advocate for the underserved.

"CREDIT UNION in capital letters has always been her religion, and she has proselytized fruitfully and widely for it," said Clifford Rosenthal, Executive Director, National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions.

Rosenthal said he has been especially impressed by her "unwavering service to the poorest members. "This has been one of Joy's defining characteristics, and one for which she has been rightly revered in the CDCU movement," Rosenthal wrote in his nomination letter.

"There is no challenge Joy ever shunned if it would mean greater service to her members; no idea so unusual that it was not worth trying; no "box" that could constrain her creativity and vision," he added.

William J. Mellin, CEO of New York State Credit Union League, Inc., and Affiliates, said, "Joy and Bethex FCU are testaments to the credit union philosophy of people helping people."

Schermerhorn said her "life and career have been dramatically impacted" by Cousminer.

"At the ripe young age of 79, Joy continues to shame me and others who cannot seem to match the vigor, the energy, nor the passion for what she does," Schermerhorn wrote.

Cousminer told the judging committee that among her most treasured accomplishments is the "ground-breaking" venture with the Rite Check check-casher firm in 11 stores around Manhattan and the Bronx.

"Through these arrangements, members can make free electronic deposits in and low-cost withdrawals from their credit union accounts," Cousminer said. "Pay-O-Matic check cashers eventually followed and joined the partnership, bringing the number of total locations around the city to roughly 100."

She expects other check cashers will soon follow, and added that several other credit unions have since created similar partnerships.

"This partnership meshes the reality of low-income urban areas with the bridge Bethex provides to the financial mainstream," Cousminer wrote. It also encourages savings by offering lower rates for CU members who put 20% of their cashed checks directly into their savings accounts via Point-of-Banking terminals.

Bethex also led the way for other CUs when it began housing accounts for several international money transmittance firms that recently ended their bank relationships for reasons unknown.

Some speculated that these closures were in compliance with the Bank Secrecy Act and Patriot Act, while others said bankers forced them out so they could keep the profits for themselves, she said.

Whatever the reason, Cousminer wrote, the closures threatened to create a difficult situation for immigrants and others who frequently send money overseas.

"While we have had to make some adjustments to our operations and be quick learners, this will prove to be an important program for Bethex," she said. "Not only does it enable more money remittance firms operating in the Bronx...it also provides a new source of income for the credit union which can fund some of the credit union's service aimed toward empowering our low-income members and bringing them into the financial mainstream."

Bethex was also among the first credit unions to offer small business loans.

"We showed that it could be done, and, in fact, was very important to supporting small businesses in the area for which obtaining financing from a bank was out of reach."

During a visit to Bethex last April, NCUA Chairman JoAnn Johnson got a tour of several small businesses that benefited from these loans. She later told the media that these business success stories "demonstrated to me the tremendous difference credit unions are making in communities where access to traditional financial services is limited."

Others who wrote nomination letters included long lists of Cousminer's accomplishments. Among them:

* She created and taught a program that aided low-income people in finding work within the financial industry.

* She performed audits for numerous credit unions at fees much lower than the industry standard.

* She fought for CUs in the political arena, advocating regulatory changes for CDCUs, in particular.

* She has been an NFCDCU board member for the last eight years.

* She was a founding member of the New York City Financial Network Action Consortium.

* She has been a board member of Bushwick Cooperative Credit Union.

* During tax season, she volunteers after hours at Bethex's Volunteer Income Tax Assistance site.

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