Counselor fights
fiscal crises

Wendy Burkholder helps people
get back on their financial track

My parents were Salvation Army ministers so it probably came as no surprise to them I wound up in the people-helping business. It was much more of a surprise to me.

I am a credit counselor with Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Hawaii. Our agency works with people who are having a tough time keeping up with their debts.

When I started as the bookkeeper for CCCS almost 14 years ago, I was in a state of transition personally. Recently separated, feeling rather lost, I interviewed for my position in a dark, cramped office in Kalihi. The job was in keeping with my background and I considered it a bridge to my next position. Little did I know ...

Having never before been involved with a nonprofit agency, I marveled at how the staff improvised so well with so little. The three of us worked out of one room, the desks so close together we were practically on top of each other. Even with my nose in the books, it was not difficult to overhear the conversations going on between my co-workers and our clients. It was apparent immediately that a large part of our workload involved dealing with crisis after crisis -- very real issues for everyday folks. Someone had lost a job, was being sued, getting divorced, had a sick child and no medical insurance, had overspent and was afraid to tell their spouse, the list goes on. The bottom line to every story was they were unable to pay their bills and they were scared.

I soon found myself answering those calls, reassuring them we were there to help and trying to calm their fears until they could see our counselor and get real solutions to their problems. A year or two later I realized I was practically counseling anyway, so I studied for and obtained my certification.

In the past 12 years we have grown considerably and my work as a counselor has been concentrated on the neighbor islands. Every island has been a different experience. Kauai folks have an underlying strength, likely due to surviving hurricanes and their aftermath. And I never leave Molokai without an invitation to stay with someone I've worked with if I can't get home to Maui.

I am humbled by the willingness of the families I have worked with to share their stories with me that are so personal in nature, and awed by the courage it takes to ask for help, commit to a plan and follow through. I have come to realize I'm part of a process that empowers people to manage the financial side of their lives while never losing sight of their humanity They never become client No. 1234, they remain Joe and Betty Smith. To maintain that kind of relationship in today's fast-paced world is a rare privilege.

I keep a copy of a letter written to me by a client shortly after she paid off the last of her debts in 1993. When she first came to see me she was receiving at least eight phone calls a day from her creditors. Most were well-mannered professionals, but the few who were less than scrupulous were causing her a great deal of anxiety, leaving her feeling hopeless. She worked hard at her program, struggled, sacrificed and succeeded, with a little help from CCCS. In her letter she expressed her gratitude for the assistance we provided, but more importantly to her, that she had been treated with dignity and her peace of mind ad been restored. That letter is my touchstone on days when nothing seems to be going right.

So the bookkeeper position was a bridge to becoming a counselor. And the missionary gene continues to run in our family. My folks' concern was people's spiritual well being. Mine is their peace of mind through sound financial management and solutions to money problems.

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