‘Playing hooky’

Published 8:20 pm Saturday, January 8, 2011

Woman’s company pays her to skip work

Lori Irwin works for Signature, but she rarely shows up to work there.


When Irwin plays hooky from work, she heads for the United Way, but she’s hardly kicking up her heels. There’s a lot of work to be done.

Irwin has worked for Signature, a wealth management firm, since 1999. But in May 2009, they told her to stop coming to the office.

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“We said, ‘Lori, go figure out what needs to be done,’” said Susan Colpitts, a principal in Signature.

That’s when Irwin began working for the United Way — even though Signature has been paying her salary all along. Irwin was charged with developing LiveSmart, a financial education program begun by United Way but with numerous community partners on board.

Irwin was working as a financial planner at Signature and volunteering with Crown Financial Ministries when her bosses took notice of her volunteer work and saw a need for financial help in the community.

“They have allowed me to do what I’m passionate about full-time,” Irwin said.

To date, LiveSmart in South Hampton Roads has developed into a program with more than 50 partnering organizations. It offers financial stability counseling, trains volunteers for the Thrive by Five preschool financial literacy program and hopes to offer even more programs in the future.

The Thrive by Five program, which is taught to Early Start children in Suffolk schools, focuses on building simple financial values that preschoolers can understand.

“From the time we’re toddlers, we learn the concept of ‘We can wait,’” Irwin said. “That’s when our value systems get trained.”

The program uses a simple budgeting system — separate money to save, spend and give — to teach young children the values that guide monetary habits later in life.

“You can wait, you can be thankful for what you have, you can plan for the future,” Irwin said. “You can save and plan a purchase in the future. Gifts don’t have to cost money. All of your money isn’t necessarily for spending on yourself. I really think that those kinds of principles are making our community a better place to live.”

The LiveSmart program also runs a financial literacy program for teens. They are considering programs to work with rental managers to create a financial literacy program for their residents, and also thinking of a program that would help teach financial literacy to companies’ employees.

“Companies lose productivity when their employees are in financial distress,” Colpitts said.

For Irwin, one of the most rewarding aspects of her job is helping people become financially stable by getting them on a stable budget, helping them avoid predatory lenders and connecting them with resources.

“I’m seeing some different trends,” she said. “People are operating with lesser incomes. They’re trying to live independently on a salary that just cannot pay the rent. Older people are having mortgages. People have their finances constrained in ways they haven’t had before.”

Irwin said the program already has given hope to dozens who needed their help.

“We can give them encouragement and help them think through the consequences,” she said. “Even though it may take them a while, we don’t have an easy fix that I think a lot of people are looking for.”

While the LiveSmart program works to help people in need now, it also hopes to change the financial behaviors of the next generation through the Thrive by Five program.

“Part of it has to be how we approach our financial systems,” Irwin said.

She also acknowledged the contributions of United Way and Signature to help the program get off the ground. Signature has made a commitment at least through this May to allow her to continue working with United Way.

“You really just don’t see a lot of corporations taking that significant an interest in the community,” Irwin said. “They’ve certainly inspired some investment from other partners interested in doing these same kinds of things.”

If you would like to volunteer with LiveSmart or seek help from them, call 853-8500, ext. 112.