Martize Tolbert is well aware of the challenges facing people leaving prison.
When Tolbert was released from prison in Virginia in 2016, he faced barrier after barrier that prevented him from reestablishing his life. Among the challenges, he says he couldn’t get a driver’s license because of his drug convictions, late child-support payments and court fees.
And a driver’s license is just a first linkin a long chain of necessities — from transportation to employment to housing — that formerly incarcerated people need to reestablish independence.
Fortunately for Tolbert, he discovered the Fountain Fund, a Charlottesville-based nonprofit that has as its sole mission providing low-interest loans and financial counseling to the formerly incarcerated. With loans from the nonprofit, Tolbert was able to pay off back debts and obtain a license.
Tolbert was one of the organization's first clients; he is now the organization’s national director of client and community engagement. And this week, he is in Boston to announce that the Fountain Fund will be opening a local office next year. When the office opens its doors, it will become Boston’s first loan fund that operates exclusively to support the financial needs of people returning from prison.
“We are a bank, but we're more than a bank. We're a family,” Tolbert told GBH News on Wednesday. “A traditional bank is going to judge you on your background credit score, how you live, the complexion of your skin, all these different variables and challenges of the day and age. Well, we don't. We accept them, and we try to help.”
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The Fountain Fund’s model is to provide micro-loans but also a whole host of other services, including credit counseling, financial planning and connections to other organizations that can help with housing and employment. The group sees the financial assistance as simply a part of the “wraparound” services that a returning citizen needs.
Leslie Credle, founder and executive director of Justice 4 Housing — which helps justice-involved people find housing in the Boston area — applauded the model. "We welcome the Fountain Fund's driven approach that paves the path for greater equity and wealth building to Boston's most incarcerated corridor of Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan," she said.
Executive Director Erika Viccellio said the fund does not have pre-designed programs or products. Instead, she said, “You tell us what success looks like for you and let us see if we can help make that happen through access to capital and ultimately through credit building.”
The group provides loans ranging from $250 to $15,000 at 5% interest — or 3% for people who sign up to make direct payments from a bank account. And the loans can cover all kinds of expenses or costs.
Viccellio says the relationships may be even more meaningful than the money. “The access to capital is important — the money is necessary,” she said. “But I think what's more important is having someone believe in you. I can't tell you how many people have said to us, ‘This is the first time someone said yes to me, or this is the first time someone believed in me.’ … Again and again and again. We hear that.”
The Fountain Fund’s expansion to Boston is made possible by a $600,000 grant from the GreenLight Fund, a national nonprofit that helps communities identify and replicate programs that have succeeded elsewhere.
Melissa Luna, executive director of GreenLight’s Boston office, said the grant grew out of a yearlong process of speaking with local community groups to figure out what needs were not being addressed. As those groups began talking about economic security and opportunity for returning citizens, Luna said she mentioned the Fountain Fund and its loan program. “As soon as we would say that, people would say ‘Are they already here? Because I have three people …'" she said.
At that point, Luna said they knew that the Fountain Fund model would be a good fit for Boston. The long-term goal is not the loan, she said, but establishing a credit history.
“We know that if you have no credit in this country … you don't have access to capital, you can't talk about wealth building here,'' she said. "That's really what we're trying to drive.”
For Tolbert, credit is only the starting point. He says a key focus of the loan program is "elevation'' — "That's freedom, that's independence,'' he said. "There has to be an elevation piece tied to this. How will this loan elevate you and your family and your current status."
Tolbert said he regularly calls clients not to check in on payment of a loan or on any particular task — but just to “love on/check on” the person.
“I do that all day, every day. Text message, Snapchat, social media, Instagram,” he said. “There are a lot of people hurting out here in this community, and our communities all over. So sometimes it's just a conversation that they're looking for a support and energy ... I'm pulling my brothers and sisters with me.”
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the year of Tolbert's release from prison.