How One CU's Branch Has Transformed Navajo Community

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During the course of a busy day, we go to the grocery store, pick up a prescription, and stop by our financial institution. But consider living 50 miles away from these services and how this would change these everyday tasks.

This was the dilemma of the Ramah Navajo community located 100 miles, round-trip, from Gallup, N.M. The community consists of approximately 500 households, most of which are well below the poverty level. Prior to the 1990s, the Ramah community had no local access to retail or financial services.

In 1992, a shopping center was built in the community of Pine Hill on the reservation, but for financial services, residents still had to drive 100 miles round-trip to a financial institution in Gallup. Residents could cash their paychecks at the only grocery store, but this created a burden on the store and residents were forced to keep mostly cash.

The local government leaders recognized the community's frustration and sent out requests for proposals to three banks and one credit union in the area, asking these institutions to consider opening an office and providing an ATM to their community. First Financial Credit Union was the only institution to respond.

First Financial worked with the Ramah community and the mini-mall to secure space for a small office and an ATM. The credit union office now resides in the grocery store. To help get the project going, the grocery store initially provided free rent. The CU's board understood the risk of opening and running an office in such a small community, but also recognized the importance of this type of benefit for the area.

This office, open since 1998, operates three days a week with a staff of one and serves about 600 members with approximately $1.2 million on deposit. About 2,000 teller transactions are conducted each month. With reduced hours of operations and minimal rent, the branch continues to be viable now and into the future.

The benefits of having a local branch and ATM are easy to recognize. Residents no longer need to take time off from work and spend money on gas to perform financial business. When the office is closed, they have access to the ATM, 24/7 service through the credit union's phone center, an automated phone service, and free online banking/bill pay.

Through their partnership, both the credit union and the Ramah Navajo community have benefited from working together to bring convenient financial services to this unique community.

Ben Heyward is president/CEO of First Financial Credit Union.

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