WASHINGTON (6/23/10)--New Jersey credit unions are exploring how best to serve the estimated 1.8 million people with disabilities that are unbanked by participating in the Building Economic Strength Together (BEST) program, an internship program for young people with disabilities. The partnership between host credit unions and their interns is possible through collaborative efforts of the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions, the Kessler Foundation, the National Credit Union Foundation’s (NCUF) REAL Solutions Program, Allies Inc., a New Jersey based training group for people with disabilities, the New Jersey Credit Union League, and the National Disability Institute (NDI). Pamela Owens, the federation’s director of education and training who is coordinating the program for the federation, said that this is a tremendous opportunity for the interns and the credit unions who agree to host them. “The BEST Internship Program serves as a way to reach out to this large and predominantly underserved population in a meaningful way,” Owens said. “For credit unions, this is a major opportunity to grow their membership while making a positive impact on the interns’ lives.” The BEST program came to the attention of credit unions when NDI, the federation and Allies Inc. obtained a grant from the Kessler Foundation to conduct the internship program. NCUF provided a $7,500 grant through its signature program REAL Solutions to assist the New Jersey Credit Union League in recruiting credit unions to host interns and conduct workshops exploring strategies for credit unions to better serve people with disabilities. “The BEST program is a fantastic opportunity for the participating credit unions to explore and develop strategies to better serve people with disabilities,” said Lois Kitsch, REAL Solutions program director. “The promising outcome is to be able to replicate the BEST program and the best practices that result from it so that credit unions throughout the country can tap into this emerging market.” REAL Solutions Field Coach Mark Lynch is facilitating the three workshops in which each group of interns along with representatives from participating credit unions will discuss products, programs and partnerships that credit unions would need to establish to serve the disability community. Part of the REAL Solutions grant is to produce a formal report based on the findings that come from the workshops. This report will be released to the media and will be available on the REAL Solutions Impact Center later this year. The first of three internship cycles has already seen results, NCUF said. The five interns participating in the pilot cycle are completing their six-week internships that included work on information technology, member service and marketing projects. “The BEST intern program has opened my eyes to the persons with disabilities community both from an employer perspective as well as from a customer perspective,” said Tracy Sussmann, president/CEO of Mid-State FCU, Carteret, and a participant in the BEST Program. “We are now looking at offering products and services to assist the disability community.” The other participating credit unions are: Local 1233 FCU, Newark; New Community FCU, Newark; and NJ Gateway FCU, Monmouth Junction. By the end of the year, an additional 20 interns will be placed in New Jersey credit unions during the second and third cycles.