The California wildfires have killed at least 42 people, caused at least $1 billion in damages and destroyed nearly 7,000 homes. So Patelco Credit Union has had its work cut out for it.

Pleasanton, Calif.-based Patelco Credit Union has implemented a member disaster relief program in the wake of the wildfires, and has also begun several initiatives to aid the Santa Rosa community. The California Credit Union League, in conjunction with the National Credit Union Foundation, has also activated CUAid for affected credit unions, and Patelco is just one of many CUs that has undertaken relief efforts for members and employees impacted by the fires.

Patelco already had a plan in place after wildfires from years past, but this time around the plan will aid not just those hard hit by the California fires – which impacted as many as 9,000 members – but also members suffering from hurricane aftermath in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico.

Staff from the credit union have called those 9,000 members to see how they fared through the fires. As of Oct. 18, 47 members had lost their homes.

Patelco Credit Union employees gave out prepared packets to people in the community in the parking lot of it's Santa Rosa, Calif. branch.
Patelco Credit Union employees gave out prepared packets to people in the community in the parking lot of it's Santa Rosa, Calif. branch.

“You’re pretty much glued to the news,” said CEO Erin Mendez. “This damage is not something you think you’re ever going to see. This type of destruction is horrible, but it’s even harder to hear the stories. Team members will sometimes break down and cry listening to members’ stories.”

As part of its wildfire relief efforts, the CU has given out nearly $100,000 in disaster-related loans to around 50 people.

“You have to have a really strong capital position to do stuff like this,” Mendez said. The $5.8 billion-asset Patelco’s capital is nearly 11%. “The goal with our members is to build our members financial health and financial well-being.”

The main goal of the plan was to provide members with instant access to cash, which is why the plan offers an immediate $500 personal loan with no interest for up to a year.

A helping hand
When the 2017 California wildfires started, Mendez and her staff created a new offering: Loans up to $5,000 for a three-year period — the first year is interest free and the subsequent two years at 3.25% interest. “It’s a break-even loan for us at best,” Mendez said. “For the Santa Rosa situation, we had people who needed to get apartments, and we wanted to make sure that our relief program satisfies a large spectrum of people.”

Low interest loans at 5% APR for up to $10,000 are also available to members.

The plan also focuses on making payments and withdrawals easier for affected members by waiving early withdrawal fees on any share certificates, reversing NSF or late fees, and reimbursing ATM fees for non-network ATM withdrawals. Even more, Patelco automatically defers payments on existing mortgage, home equity loans, consumer loans and credit cards with no late fees through Dec. 31, 2017 for members in impacted zip codes.

“If we have to take some of our return on assets earnings, we’re going to do that with our board blessing us on the way,” she said.

The CU has not only been generous with quick cash, but also hands-on support in the Santa Rosa community.

Last week, the CU contacted the Santa Rosa food bank to see what its biggest need has been. The food bank had a large shipment of food coming in on Thursday but didn’t have enough hands to package it. Hearing that they needed weekday volunteers, Patelco sent approximately 60 employees on rented buses, half of which went on Thursday and the other half on Friday.

The credit union then put together 1,000 “hygiene” kits, extended batteries for cell phones and blankets. The staff arranged for food trucks to come and serve hot meals in the headquarters' parking lot as the employees gave away these packets. Patelco staff figured out what the community needed by calling local charities and talking with members.

The credit union has also established a webpage where members can donate to local charities. Patelco is collecting and matching monetary donations up to $100,000 and giving those funds to Catholic Charities in Santa Rosa, as well as Redwood Empire Food Bank and Ceres Community Project.

Additionally, in the next month, the CU plans on hosting a financial coaching seminar at Santa Rosa Community Center for both members and non-members in the community.

“It’s another avenue to ask financial questions,” Mendez said. “To hear about their situation and to talk to them about the programs that we’re offering.”

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