Debt: A spiral which can be reversed

Yee Liu Williams discovers how one woman’s personal tragedy gave birth to a network of debt advice centres across the UK.

Heather Keates, the founder of Community Money Advice (CMA), knows what it is to live with crippling debt.

In 1992, her life was thrown into turmoil by the death of her third child, Tom. He had been born with no pulmonary artery, a rare condition which involved weeks in Guys Hospital in London. He was not expected to live past his fourth birthday. Heather, who had had a difficult pregnancy resulting in many weeks in hospital, was recovering from his birth and her husband’s business was faltering. ‘Sometimes we even had to borrow to put petrol in the car just so we could visit him.’

Tom was only five months when he died, alone, in an emergency air ambulance on the journey to Guys Hospital from France, where the family were on holiday. ‘When the world around you totally disintegrates there are two choices,’ says Heather. ‘You can either fight or let it completely overwhelm you. But for us, we had our Christian faith that we just clung to.’

Then the medical bills started to arrive – along with demands for repayments of the amounts borrowed to enable them to put food on the table – over £30,000 in all. The Keates family had to sell their home and came close to losing everything. ‘We kept on borrowing just to live,’ remembers Heather. ‘It was as though we were trapped in a downward spiral, often borrowing just to pay back debt with no real idea how to reverse the spiral.’

Family, friends and their church rallied round, and their care and support got the Keates family through it. Over the next 12 years, they managed to pay back what they owed as Heather’s husband, Tim, found regular work and his business picked up.

Community Money Advice

Community Money Advice

The experience prompted Heather to think of those struggling through equally hard times, with no access to advice and support. ‘How many people go through dark times without that bedrock, having to face circumstances similar to ours, sometimes of their own making and sometimes through no fault of their own?’ Her faith spurred her to take action.

She approached her church fellowship in Burgess Hill, West Sussex, with the idea of ‘offering help and advice to anyone in the congregation who wanted it’. In 1997 they set up their first ‘drop in debt advice clinic’ in Burgess Hill. Community Money Advice (CMA) was registered as a charity in 2003, and has since helped 158 churches and local groups around the country to set up debt advice centres, offering services from training in budgeting and form-filling to handling personal insolvency.

Looking back, Heather says, ‘I don’t know how we managed given how little our combined knowledge and experience of the money advice sector was at the time.’ She believes that CMA’s unique service is not just practical advice but listening to clients ‘to give them the space and time they need to piece their lives back together’.

In today’s tough economy, CMA sees a wide variety of clients from all sectors of society including those on low incomes and the ‘striving professional middle class’. The subject is often hidden and unspoken. ‘Teachers, police, banking and service sector workers – many of them homeowners – are struggling with mortgages, secured loan, and credit card debt. Typically they are already financially stretched but have been pushed over the edge by circumstances beyond their control.’

Heather admits that there have been times when they have been out of their depth and uncertain about what lies ahead, but she holds to her belief that ‘God will provide’. She shows me around the eco-build home which Tim has painstakingly created from a derelict old barn. Life for the family is very different from those dark days 20 years ago.

Since 2004, Heather has been looking at the issues surrounding personal debt across the nation, with a view to shaping policy and legislation.

CMA is implementing an ambitious plan to offer the hope of freedom from debt to thousands of people each year, by further extending its network across the UK.

Photo credit: Community Money Advice

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