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AARP AARP States Virginia Finances 50+

Taking Care of your Finances: Roanoke Financial Empowerment Center

Older couple shaking hands with financial planner
Ariel Skelley/Getty Images

Many older people face financial challenges; from downsizing to reconfiguring their budgets, finding affordable housing, or long-term care insurance, changing investment strategies, dealing with health issues, losing a spouse, or paying college loans for their children or grandchildren. These issues are not new to seniors but identifying a place or a person to turn to when you need answers can also be frustrating and time-consuming.

One of the answers to these questions can be right in your city or the surrounding area. The Roanoke Financial Empowerment Center, located in Roanoke, Virginia, is one such service available to individuals seeking financial assistance.

The Roanoke Financial Empowerment Center (FEC), was launched during the COVID-19 pandemic in June 2020 and funded by a collaboration between Roanoke City, Freedom First Credit Union, and Freedom First Enterprises, the credit union’s 501(c)(3) non-profit.


According to Tim Cerebe, vice president of Community Development Programs at Freedom First, “the FEC didn’t sprout up overnight. Freedom First has been providing financial education programming for more than a decade. It also took years of research and forming partnerships and collaborations with the City and with community partners.” Cerebe explained that the process started 10 years ago with financial literacy classes for non-profit partners, such as Total Action for Progress (TAP), to educate them on financial needs, identity theft, and safeguarding assets.

During this time, Freedom First conducted small and large in-person classes, held one-on-one counseling sessions based on goal setting, and tailored financial literacy to meet each organization’s needs. Because of their work with organizations on financial literacy, First Freedom was recognized by MET Life Foundation and the Wall Street Journal. With the newfound acknowledgment and proven results, Freedom First had documented proof that what they had accomplished profoundly impacted the organizations and communities they served - reducing debt and debt load, increasing credit scores, etc. The proven results and accolades led to the center’s discovery by the Cities of Financial Empowerment (CFE) Fund.

In 2018, Freedom First began working with the City of Roanoke and City Manager Robert Cowell on the collaboration between the city, the credit union, and CFE Fund. They wanted to provide no-cost financial counseling to the community, whereas the financial counselors were extensively trained to work with various clients with variant economic challenges. It took two years of planning, applying for grants through CFE Fund, working with more than 20 community partners to help shape the program and establish the empowerment center, Cerebe said.

Currently there are more than 20 financial empowerment centers in operation across the United States with about a dozen other cities in the planning process to launch FECs in the next 12 months. Roanoke hosts the first and currently only Financial Empowerment Center in the State of Virginia. Another center is slated to open in Richmond soon.

Cerebe explained that the center operates on four primary funding sources: CFE Fund, City of Roanoke, Freedom First, and a grant from Carilion. The funding from the CFE is two years. Therefore, they will be seeking grants and other partnerships to maintain the no-cost services.

Purpose of the Financial Empowerment Center

The purpose of the Center is to offer no- cost professional one-on-one financial counseling to residents of the Roanoke area with a certified financial counselor. Although many clients live in or near Roanoke City, the center’s doors are open to anyone in the valley who needs assistance. These services include:

  • Assisting with money management
  • Budgeting
  • Debt reduction
  • Establishing and improving debt
  • Connecting clients to safe and affordable banking services
  • Building savings
  • Making referrals to other services and organizations

*Interpreter services are available for individuals who speak a primary language other than English.

About the Manager

As the Financial Empowerment Center Program Manager, Keri Garnett earned a Bachelor of Arts in Human Services and a Master of Education at Northeastern University. Because of her background in Human Services and her work within the community, she was the perfect fit to be the first Manager. Because of the personal aspect of communicating with clients, the position was not all about seeking someone whose background was strictly in finance. Instead, Freedom First was searching for a manager who had the human services side of the puzzle to work with clients who have emotional or mental health needs before they began working on their financial goals.

According to Garnett, “the model of the FEC is a one-on-one approach to working with clients with very emotional and personal life situations that have to be addressed before they can dive into their finances. Therefore, our Counselors must focus on behavioral economics, life circumstances, and the mental health impact on clients’ finances.”


When people hear about financial counseling, they tend to think about budgets or credit reports, Cerebe said. However, the FEC does much more, he said, “they help with how to connect with stimulus, child tax credit, and connect to other resources.” The Roanoke FEC is open and available for all, whether their income is $10,000 or $250,000 per year.

Both Cerebe and Garnett indicated that one of their goals is to work with more older adults, which is evident by their relationship with the Local Organization on Aging (LOA). The FEC works with LOA to identify those who may need their assistance by placing flyers in the Meals-On-Wheels deliveries and advertising in their monthly newsletter.

What Older People Need to Know

The center is open to all demographics regardless of income, race, gender, or age. If you are about to retire, want to go back to school, on a strict income, want cheaper budget options, or want to connect to other financial options, the center might be able to help. As Cerebe explains, “there are values to adding more seniors from all demographics. Seniors, just like the rest of us, have unique challenges, and the financial counselors meet clients where they are, help clients who have been the target of scams and schemes, identity theft, and clients who have been victims of fraud.”

Many older people think the service is not for them and just for younger people, however, Garnett gave two examples of working with people over the age of 55:

Scenario 1: A client’s husband passed away, and the wife was going through grieving for her husband and some transitional issues on how to budget and place the house in her name since it was only in her husband’s name. The counselor worked with the client through these transitions, helped her establish a new budget, and assisted her in getting the resources needed to place the house in her name.

Scenario 2: The counselor worked with a retired educator on making their savings grow and how to budget for his wife by developing a plan on how she would be able to live on an income if something happened to him.

According to Garnett, the first appointment involves getting to know the client and building a relationship, exploring what goals they want to accomplish, and discussing any barriers to achieve those goals. After that, there are no limits on the number of appointments. However, it is recommended that clients attend at least three sessions with their financial counselor, so that they can properly assess a client’s needs. Currently, the average number of appointments are between 2-4 sessions based on the client’s need.


All counselors trained through the CFE Fund attend monthly training through various organizations, including the City of Roanoke. These trainings allow the financial counselors to stay on top of the latest financial information, trends, and community services, as well as relevant counseling techniques.

Since its launch in June 2020, the FEC has served over 500 individuals and families, reduced over $400,000 in debt for Roanoke-area residents, and helped clients put over $60,000 in savings accounts.

Cerebe applauds Roanoke City Manager Robert Cowell and the City of Roanoke for seeing a larger vision to provide expanded services. Although Roanoke FEC is a program/service of the City of Roanoke, the benefit is open to all in the Roanoke area and continues to be heavily utilized by other surrounding city and county residents.


A meeting can be via phone, Zoom, or in person. All in-person sessions are conducted at Freedom First Credit Union, 5002 Cross Road NW, Suite A, Roanoke, VA 24012. Call(540) 427-6811, email, or visit their website.

Although most appointments take place between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., they can see clients after 5 p.m. and on weekends if clients need flexibility. It’s important to be able to meet clients where they are, especially when it comes to scheduling, “because in order to help people grow and help our community be financially successful we focus less on the financial aspect, and more about the clients being successful in their financial goals,” Garnett said.


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