John Cole has spent the last decade of his life working in the in-home care industry, helping to make sure clients are on time when it comes to making it to appointments and taking medications.

But only recently did Cole learn the importance of keeping his own affairs in tip-top shape.

Late payments to a used-car dealer and a student loan that he just couldn’t seem to catch up on over the years have come back to haunt the 50-year-old Omahan and first-time entrepreneur.

As owner of Picket Fence Home Care at 6624 Blondo St., Cole is charged with looking after about 20 clients on top of a staff of caregivers who must be paid every two weeks. He found out the hard way that creditors don’t just forget about your history of paying bills late.

“As a small-business owner, I can’t get the loans I need to function day to day with bad credit,” said Cole, who also said he holds a $10,000 student loan for one of his three adult children.

Most credit scores fall between 600 and 750, with a higher score indicating characteristics like low debt and a history of on-time payments, for example. Of course, banks smile on higher scores. (The highest-possible score is 850, but 750 and above is considered “excellent.”)

Cole’s best score — the three main credit-reporting agencies don’t necessarily issue identical scores to the same individual — is 530.

So begins the process of getting back on track with the help of a relatively new financial empowerment initiative called Hope Inside.

“Taking what I learned in 1.5 hours here and looking back, I realize I could have prevented all of this,” Cole said Thursday night after a Hope Inside credit workshop at Metropolitan Community College’s Fort Omaha campus.

Dozens of other Omahans have participated in similar workshops sponsored by Operation Hope, which for 25 years has armed financially struggling consumers with the tools they need to become more self-sufficient.

Instead of quartering its outreach efforts in stand-alone locations like it used to, Operation Hope is rapidly chartering more of the Hope Inside offices in bank branches like Mutual of Omaha Bank’s flagship location at 3333 Farnam St.

As such, banking veteran Jeff Schmid prefers would-be borrowers hang around the lobby of Mutual’s midtown location if they’ve been turned down for a loan.

That may sound like a lot to ask of someone whose dreams of a new vehicle, home or business have just been dashed on account of spotty credit. But Hope Inside offers those potential borrowers a clearing through the haze of defeat, says Schmid, who is chairman and chief executive of Mutual of Omaha Bank and also is on the board of directors for Operation Hope.

“It’s not a, ‘So long, try again at another bank,’ or ‘Fix it on your own and come back later,’ ” Schmid said. “If you can’t qualify for traditional credit, we say, ‘Let’s get your credit score to 700.’ ”

That can require dozens of hours of time.

Ashley Peters, the Hope Inside “coach” in the office at Mutual of Omaha Bank, said she’s already spent about 40 hours each with two clients. In addition to analyzing credit reports with clients, Peters also works with their creditors and, when necessary, bill collectors.

“This is very heavy on the details, but I try not to do everything for (clients) to encourage accountability,” Peters said.

Improving credit scores to the level of “bankability” is a core tenet of the program, which also helps customers prepare to take on loans for homes or businesses, or avoid foreclosure. If program participants are successful, the bank also maintains a direct connection with a potential new customer.

Alec Gorynski, First National Bank of Omaha’s vice president of corporate philanthropy and social responsibility, said the bank has a long track record of supporting financial education initiatives either directly or through grants. Sometimes, that support translated to credit counseling, but not always — and the bank wasn’t directly offering credit counseling to customers who needed it.

That changed late last summer when First National Bank of Omaha’s 50th Street and Ames Avenue location became home to the metro area’s first Hope Inside branch.

Banks generally contribute about $75,000 and office space to the nonprofit Operation Hope in exchange for a Hope Inside branch. That covers the costs of the program, which includes a full-time staffer.

Plus, participating banks can potentially get credit from their regulators for fulfilling requirements under the federal Community Reinvestment Act, which requires financial institutions to be active in all areas of communities they serve and not just in more lucrative, wealthy tracts.

Among the groups Atlanta-based Operation Hope focuses on is a segment of the population known as the “underbanked” — that is, those who have a checking or savings account but have also sought to plug holes with alternative sources of money like payday lenders or title loans.

In the Omaha-Council Bluffs metro area, more than 27 percent of households qualified as underbanked in 2015, according to the most recent data from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Metro Omaha’s underbanked rate is more in line with those in cities like Atlanta, Oklahoma City and Tulsa, Oklahoma, than it is with the rate for Nebraska, the Midwest or the U.S. as a whole.

In Nebraska, about 21 percent of households qualified as unbanked or underbanked in 2015, according to the FDIC report. That figure falls to about 18 percent of households on the regional level and is about 20 percent nationally.

Experts say a lot of the disparity between Omaha’s rate of unbanked or underbanked relative to the state and region likely has to do with more diverse metropolitan demographics relative to other areas of the state.

Younger and lower-income households in general tend to shy away from banks, and even those with banking relationships are more likely to visit an alternative financial provider like a payday lender, said Steve Shepelwich, senior community development adviser at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, which has an Omaha branch. (Omaha’s poverty rate of about 17 percent is higher than the statewide rate of about 13 percent, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.)

Locally, poverty rates are more closely in line with states and metro areas in the South, where rates of underbanked households and people with no banking relationships tend to be higher than the national average. There, regional banks like SunTrust and First Tennessee Bank have plans to ramp up their involvement with Hope Inside.

In First Tennessee’s hometown of Memphis, where less than 55 percent of households have any form of banking relationship, bank officials say offering financial counseling to potential customers makes sense.

“Homeownership isn’t far-fetched when your debt falls and your credit score rises,” says First Tennessee spokeswoman Kim Cherry. “When people own homes and settle into neighborhoods, communities get stronger.”

But getting those prospects into a bank in the first place is harder than it seems.

Julie Kalkowski runs the Financial Hope Collaborative at Creighton University’s Heider College of Business and said the prospect of a $35 overdraft fee is enough to keep many people away from a bank, especially when money is already tight.

“Whether it’s real or not, they perceive they’re not welcome (in a bank),” Kalkowski said.

Mutual’s Schmid, who has been in the industry for 40 years, agrees.

“The look of a marble-clad Chase Bank on a corner ... just seems unapproachable to someone with known credit problems. I think that needs to change,” he said.

Customers must also be willing to pull themselves up, however.

Cole, the home care entrepreneur, said he’s ready to do what it takes to get back on firm financial ground. He thinks it could be as many as three years before he’s in the clear.

“It can be done,” he said. “It’ll just take some discipline.”, 402-444-1534

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