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Senior citizens start credit system

WINNEBAGO, Neb. - Seniors from the Winnebago Tribe found a unique way to help each other financially while providing additional revenue for the Senior Center.

Elders who have trouble making ends meet at the end of the month, who need some gas money or who encounter a financial emergency can go to the site council at the Senior Center and borrow up to $50. The catch is they must pay the money back plus $5 interest the next month.

So far the center has been able to buy a new water heater and other items and has about $2,000 in the bank.

Lance Morgan, executive director of Ho-Chunk Inc., the business arm of the Winnebago Tribe, said the tribal grocery store was holding a lot of debt, mostly from seniors. He said a way to solve that was to seed a senior credit account with $1,000. It was a way to supplement the seniors' incomes and get the store out of the hole.

"The seniors that make up the site council made the policy and guidelines and it's up to the seniors who gets the loans," Senior Center director Sydney Bird said. Participants at the senior center chose the people who make up the site council which is the loaning authority.

The loan program began by allowing 10 loans at $50 each. When one of the loans is repaid, it opens up an opportunity for another senior to borrow $50. After two years, Bird said 15 loans can be made each month and with profits from this year, it's possible another five will be added by the site council, she said.

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The tribe does not loan funds for less than $100 and an application must be filled out and sometimes it could be two months before the money is awarded, Bird said. This program allows the seniors a chance to come up with some funds in a more expedient manner.

Bird said there have only been a couple of problems with delinquency. She said two people who refused to pay had to be taken to court where they were ordered to pay back the loan with the interest.

The fact a senior's peers are part of the site council and if a person is in arrears "they will tell you to pay it back" is a real advantage, Bird said.

Four people are authorized to sign the checks, which makes it possible to issue a check in case of an emergency, Bird said. Most of the people are at the center on a daily basis.

Since federal grants do not provide enough funding for the center, the loan program profits help.

The guidelines developed by the seniors set the maximum loan at $50 with a 10 percent return, which accrues monthly. The loans are payable on the 5th day of the month. Only those 55 and older can apply for loans. If a person falls delinquent on the loan and finally repays, that person remains ineligible for another loan for the same period of time it took to pay back the first loan. All checks need two signatures and a completed application is necessary.

Even though a few people said the program wasn't right, the majority of seniors on the Winnebago reservation approve of the loan system, Bird said.