Brownsville, a Texas border town with an immigrant population that lags far behind the national median in terms of household income, is in great need of better access to financial literacy education, local banker Bertha Garza says. But the need has become a little less great since Garza got on the job.

A first vice president at IBC Bank in Brownsville, Garza several years ago began occasionally teaching financial literacy classes at area schools and organizations. Her effort became more formalized in 2009, when she implemented the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.'s Money Smart Program and the Federal Reserve's Building Wealth Program in the community, and brought IBC's proprietary education program, called Money Buzz, to local schools. Her aim: to work with youngsters on the importance of money and saving, and to have that message trickle up to the students' parents. Now she hopes to help provide the 50,000 students in the Brownsville Independent School District with exposure to a financial literacy curriculum as early as the second grade.

"We want to help prepare families way in advance" for things like college expenses, Garza says. "We have a lot of families that are challenged and as a community we are working very hard to get that changed."

Garza's efforts have served to inspire other banks as well. When IBC in Brownsville hosts its second financial education summit, five other banks will participate. Last year, it was just IBC, which has $928 million of assets.

On Thursday evening in New York, at an American Banker gala celebrating the most powerful women in banking and finance, Garza accepted the Community Impact Award, a new recognition honoring a woman in the industry who has had significant impact on others through her work. She is the first recipient of the award.

Garza, who oversees marketing for IBC Bank in Cameron County, Texas, manages a $70 million account portfolio and serves as assistant board secretary at the bank, says she won't consider her work in financial literacy a success until she no longer hears customers come into an IBC branch asking for help in overcoming credit card debt or ending a cycle of using payday loans to make ends meet.

"That's when I would know that we made a dent," Garza says. "That's when people are learning to make better choices."

Financial literacy is just one cause that Garza supports locally. She's chair of El Rebozo Atravéz del Tiempo, a fundraising event for the University of Texas at Brownsville, and the founder of Women, Money & Power, a group that seeks to empower women through financial education. She also is a past president of the Brownsville Museum of Fine Art.

"Bertha provides a lot of leadership by example," says Fred Rusteberg, president and chief executive of IBC, a unit of $11.5 billion-asset International Bancshares (IBOC) in Laredo, Texas. "She does so many things. I think there are some banks that have entire departments doing everything Bertha does for us."

Brownsville faces economic challenges, but its "wealth is found in its people," Garza says. She focuses on nurturing this resource. She sees "mentoring others as a must" and is actively sought out for advice by young women in her community. For example, despite lacking a background in campaigning or politics, she has helped two people get elected as local city commissioners.

She also provides this same support within IBC, which requires officers to serve in leadership positions at community organizations. She has planned a retreat for IBC's female employees so they could bond and learn from each other's strengths.

Garza is able to inspire others in this way because people realize quickly that "she is always speaking sincerely," Rusteberg says.

Garza, who has been in the banking industry for 40 years, credits attending the women's development programs Leadership Texas and Leadership America with helping to build her skills so she could get more involved. She realized that as a businesswoman she could not sit back "wondering if something should be fixed," she says. Instead, she recognized that she needed to "start bringing these problems to the forefront."

This work ethic and desire to help others is a characteristic that Garza says she learned from her father, who passed away two years ago. He had little formal education, but he was intelligent; he was able to learn carpentry on the job, she says.

"He would take the shirt off his back to give it to someone else," Garza says, her voice swelling with emotion. "That's what I saw growing up."

Cash-strapped banks should still be able to help out in their communities, Garza advises. Instead of making monetary donations, bankers could simply be more generous with their time. Providing guidance on a financial matter could be "priceless" to someone, she adds.

"I love banking. I have it in my veins," Garza says. "Being a banker is an important job and I believe we can make a difference in people's lives."

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