Is Lee Briggs stressed?
The Omaha single mother and full-time worker juggling classes — in Lincoln, no less — for a second college degree, answers with a shrug and a laugh.
"Yeah," Briggs said after a Creighton University pharmacy student retrieved cotton from her mouth and stuck it in a plastic vial. Creighton will measure the cortisol level in Briggs' saliva: a record of how stressed the 32-year-old is right now.
It's just one measure the university is compiling to test a theory that if you teach financially struggling single mothers how to better manage their money, they will eat better, sleep better and show improved health in mind, body and pocketbook.
"This isn't magic. It only works if you're willing to do the work," said Julie Kalkowski, who runs the Financial Success Program through Creighton's College of Business.
The mostly grant-funded program is midway through its ninth nine-week session. A 10th session is scheduled for January, and unless Kalkowski can raise more money, it could be the last.
The program has been popular. The January 2012 session is full and has a waiting list. Kalkowski is hoping research results will persuade national foundations to offer financial backing so she can offer the program quarterly.
Since the program's launch in the fall of 2009, 81 women have graduated. Nineteen others are enrolled now.
Weekly classes — part Household Budgeting 101, part support group — are held at Educare, housed on the east side of Kellom Elementary School. Child care and dinner are offered for the 2½-hour classes.
The program offers ongoing financial coaching for a year and monthly get-togethers for graduates. It also offers debt-consolidation loans; a matched savings program; earned income tax credit planning; credit report repair; monthly food pantries; help enrolling in utility level payment plans; and information on public benefits.
The health tests conducted last week are a new feature that grew out of a conversation Kalkowski had with a Creighton nursing professor. Kalkowski said she was stunned by how much better the women looked after nine weeks of classes.
"Some had lost weight," she said. "Their shoulders were back, their faces were up, they just seemed more confident. They just seemed more relaxed."
Could appearance be an indicator of improved health outcomes?
If the women did nothing else for their health except to cut fast food at least once a week, the professor told her, their health would improve.
Fast food already was a subject in class, where participants are told to keep receipts to track spending, including the stray gas station hot dog or cup of coffee. The shocker at week's end is the amount of money going to fast food.
Briggs acknowledged her weakness for unhealthy food, particularly the fatty but tasty Southern fare her Louisiana-born mother cooks. At 5-foot-2 and 191 pounds, she hopes that losing weight can ease her diabetes symptoms.
"You basically can live like you don't have diabetes," she said.
Program director Tina Gray said the class offers a chance for women to see their struggles as shared, that they are not alone in suffering whatever bad luck or bad choices landed them in financial trouble. The first class, many wept.
Gray said the women she sees often don't know how to save, nor do they know how to say no to family and friends hitting them up on payday.
"You are not mother, wife, sister, counselor," Gray tells them. "You are an individual."
A look at survey results of the 2010 participants suggests attitudes change before behavior.
Women were more likely to report feeling more hopeful, confident and in control of their finances following the class than they were to report improving their savings. But Kalkowski said she believes a mind-set change has to occur first and that the participants don't have much money to work with.
Their annual income averages $23,000, and a third of last year's 38 participants were unemployed.
Employment hasn't been a problem for Briggs, who has worked for the Douglas County Treasurer's Office for 10 years. She holds a bachelor's degree in criminal justice and is pursuing a degree in paralegal studies through the College of St. Mary. And she's studying to become a certified fraud examiner.
She really struggled after the birth of her son three years ago, when her paid leave ran out and she faced bills totaling $1,700.
"I had to learn the value of money, the purpose of money and that it's not about how much you have — it's what you do with it," Briggs said.
She is hopeful her situation will improve.
While pleased to log healthy cholesterol, blood pressure and glucose levels, she's also eager to learn how to hang on to her money, "to have it and not need to buy anything."
And reduce the stress.
Humor helps. So does the class.
"You don't feel isolated," she said. "We basically come together to have a common goal."
Contact the writer: 402-444-1136, email@example.com