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Giving Back: United Way volunteer shares wealth of financial knowledge

March 25, 2016

By Nancy Winckler-Zuniga
Originally published in The Florida Times-Union


Darrell Prather
Darrell Prather

There’s a twinkle in Darrell Prather’s eye when he’s trying to find out about something, whether it’s through his volunteer work with United Way of Northeast Florida’s RealSense initiative or through working as a project manager at the Mayport Naval Station.

“I solve problems,” Prather said, “whether it’s equipment, supplies or personnel problems.”

Prather said he draws comfort and inspiration from finding solutions and helping people. When he saw an email asking for RealSense financial-education volunteers, he signed up.

“I suppose it’s why I’m drawn to teaching the financial workshops, too,” Prather said. “It gives me a sense of peace trying to make things a little better.”

But it’s not always easy, he said. Most of the participants whom Prather helps reside in subsidized housing and are required to take the workshops. Many have gotten there under difficult circumstances.

The challenge for Prather is then to adjust the financial-education curriculum to fit their needs. For example, concepts like saving money for retirement may not be as immediate a need as learning to use a checking account properly.

“It’s hard to give people the principles of finding extra money when there is none,” Prather said. “I try to give them a sense that it’s OK. A lot of us have been there, and through RealSense, there are people with answers. There are wonderful, helpful angels who are ready to answer their questions.”

Prather said he understands many families are just a crisis away from financial hardship.

“I was fortunate,” he said. “I could have been where these families are.”

Growing up in a large Midwest family with nine brothers and sisters, life was initially pretty comfortable. But then, as a teenager, Prather’s parents divorced after 22 years of marriage.

“I remember my mom going to the bank for a loan,” Prather said. “They refused because she wasn’t Mrs. Prather anymore. She was in tears. It meant starting all over again. It was hard; most of us were still at home.”

Many of the clients Prather teaches are also single mothers who are heads of their households. Although financial regulations have changed, he knows it can still be difficult for families who are trying to restart their lives.

“It may be cliché, but I think the adage ‘the oak tree had to be started with the acorn’ fits,” said Prather, referring to breaking information down into understandable pieces for clients. It also helps clients understand that one small change in managing their finances can make a big difference.

“That would be the coolest,” he said, “that I might have really helped.”