When Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Hotel arrived in Cherokee in 1997, with it came opportunity and resources. A special challenge emerged with the establishment of the Minors Trust Fund, which provides for every Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) member to, at birth, begin receiving annual payments that are released in a lump sum as early as the age of 18. It quickly became clear there was a need for learning about money management so that the funds would be used wisely.
In fact, three different organizations sought to start programs to address this need – the North Carolina Cooperative Extension’s office in Cherokee, which works with youth; OnTrack Financial Education & Counseling), which helps individuals get out of debt; and Western Carolina University’s Cherokee Center, which serves college students on the Qualla Boundary. All three approached the Cherokee Preservation Foundation for grants, to which the Foundation responded positively with the suggestion that the groups work together.
Subsequently, Cherokee Preservation Foundation provided support for the design and launch of Qualla Financial Freedom. Eventually, Qualla Financial Freedom became a program managed and supported by the North Carolina Cooperative Extension and the EBCI. This partnership helps ensure that teaching financial management is a core module in the Cherokee Central Schools curriculum.
Most recently, the EBCI has transformed the initial concept of Qualla Financial Freedom into an online financial education program called Manage Your EBCI Money. The web-based curriculum was developed for the EBCI by First Nations Development Institute, a Colorado based nonprofit that specializes in personal finance training for native communities. The EBCI Tribal Council took the step of making completion of the Manage Your EBCI Money program a requirement prior to youth having access to their designated per capita funds.
Qualla Financial Freedom’s story charts the path from need to program idea to sustainable, long-term impact that has potential for improving the financial health of the Cherokee people. The program was honored by the Native American Finance Officers Association (NAFOA) as Financial Literacy Program of the Year in 2011.