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Free Loan is new JFSA partner

The Free Loan at the Federation Coordinator Yana Krone and Board President Phil Bregman review new brochures with Susannah Castro. /Debe Campbell, AJP

For more than 70 years, the Hebrew Free Loan Association of Tucson was “an autonomous mom and pop operation,” quietly going about its good work of providing interest-free financial assistance to thousands of Tucsonans, says board president Phil Bregman. In fact, Bregman has called it “the best-kept secret in Tucson.” That’s something he’s eager to see change, now that the organization has become a program of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, with a new name, The Free Loan at the Jewish Federation.

“The partnership with the Federation is really exciting,” giving the program additional credibility and visibility, says Bregman, who has been president of the Free Loan board, a volunteer position, for 24 years. Earlier this year, the Free Loan moved its office to the Harvey and Deanna Evenchik Center for Jewish Philanthropy, which houses the Federation and the Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona. The Free Loan also has moved its funds to the JCF, Bregman notes.

“The Free Loan has been a hidden treasure in our community — a powerful element of our community’s family of services,” says Federation President and CEO Stuart Mellan. “The Free Loan board recently approached the Federation to ask us to house and staff the program, and we were pleased to be able to do so as we believe that we can help expand its reach in serving our community.”

Bregman credits Free Loan Coordinator Yana Krone for pushing him to change the status quo. It’s all about being able to help more people, he says, explaining that he especially wants the Free Loan to gain more visibility in the Jewish community, to reach more potential borrowers as well as potential donors.

As a stand-alone organization, the Free Loan did not feel strongly connected to the larger Jewish community, Krone explains. That connection, she adds, is particularly important to Bregman, who is a member of the Handmaker family that helped found Tucson’s Hebrew Free Loan Association in 1947. Bregman, who has worn many hats in both the Jewish and the broader community, also currently serves as chair of the board of trustees of Handmaker Jewish Services for the Aging.

Unlike many Hebrew Free Loans, Tucson’s organization has been non-sectarian since its founding and that will not change with the move to the Federation, says Bregman.

The Free Loan lends funds to help people in Southern Arizona with a variety of needs, such as medical expenses, business investment, or car repairs. Loans repaid by borrowers are recycled into new loans.

Before the partnership with the Federation, Krone already had done much to increase the Free Loan’s visibility, says Bregman, including meeting with Jewish agency and synagogue leaders.

She also developed the Free Loan’s employee assistance program, introduced last year, which lets borrowers who work at enrolled businesses repay loans of up to $750 through automatic payroll deductions.

This is a unique program, says Bregman, which New York’s Hebrew Free Loan Society — a significantly larger operation — adopted after Tucson introduced it at last year’s International Association of Hebrew Free Loans conference.

Krone also helped reinvigorate the Free Loan’s board with “a really quite impressive list of folks,” says Bregman.  A full list of board members is available at the Free Loan’s new website, www.thefreeloan.org.

As part of the Federation partnership, Susannah Castro, director of Women’s Philanthropy for the Federation, has been named executive director of the Free Loan. Castro brings 20 years of experience in nonprofit administration to the Free Loan, having also served as director of operations for the Border Community Alliance and artistic director at the Tubac Center for the Arts.

“One of the things that’s exciting about having the Free Loan here at the Federation is that there are opportunities to easily connect and collaborate with Women’s Philanthropy, with the Jewish community, and with the other Jewish organizations on the shared campus,” says Castro. “The shared community gives all of us an opportunity to become more empowered.”

“It was really a terrific idea to bring Susannah on” because she “understands the culture of giving at the Federation,” says Bregman.

Graham Hoffman, JCF president and CEO, sees the potential for synergies among the Federation, Foundation and Free Loan. “I think that there’s a really significant opportunity for us to make the resources of the Free Loan more available to both members of the Jewish community and the broader community,” he says.

“Where 30 or 50 years ago [a Free Loan] might have afforded someone the opportunity to go to graduate school or learn a trade,” he says, today, loans can help young families with expenses such as quality early childhood education, day school tuition, Jewish or other summer camp, or even a trip to Israel.

One of the challenges the Free Loan has faced, he says, is securing guarantors for its traditional loans (employee financial assistance loans, which are limited to $750, do not require guarantors).

“I think we have a unique opportunity to appeal to incredibly committed and generous families in the community to act as guarantors for needy individuals and families,” says Hoffman.

Being part of the Federation gives the Free Loan more legitimacy, says Krone: “Just even for us to be in the building, people find out about us.” With approximately 3,700 nonprofits in Tucson, she says, “it’s very hard to get the marketing space” to get the Free Loan’s message across, but the Federation partnership will make that easier.

Krone echoes Bregman’s view that getting more borrowers is the number one goal.

“The great thing about our non-profit is when I meet the borrowers and we make the loan, we see the donors’ dollars go to work immediately,” she says.

The employee financial assistance program is a great option, she says, and Castro is helping her connect the Free Loan with more potential business partners.

Employee financial assistance loans don’t just help the borrowers, notes Krone. They also pump funds into the local economy. With a loan for an auto repair, for example, that also helps the employer whose employee doesn’t miss work because they have no transportation and the mechanic who gets paid to make the repair.

She notes that the Free Loan is a much better deal for borrowers than high interest options such as auto title loans, which can plunge the borrower into an endless cycle of debt. “We’ve paid off title loans — and the interest stops,” she says. “Now all of a sudden they owe just what they’re borrowing, and it’s much more manageable.”

But Krone is concerned that there is still a “stigma of shame” many borrowers feel. It is something she works hard to dispel.

“When I talk to people, I really try to make them feel comfortable. There’s no shame in asking for assistance. Everybody needs help once in a while,” she emphasizes.

To make an appointment with the Free Loan, call 297-5360. To apply for a loan online — or make a donation — visit www.thefreeloan.org. Donations to the Free Loan qualify for the Arizona Charitable Tax