Bethel New Life graduated its last SmartSavers class in a Monday night ceremony keynoted by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

The SmartSaver program is a financial literacy initiative that helps individuals save for a house, start a business or pay for college. Participants who complete the 10-week program and save $2,000 toward their goal will receive a $4,000 matching grant from Bethel New Life, an Austin based community development agency.

Since its inception in 2006, SmartSavers has helped 113 businesses, sent 47 people to college and helped participants save a total of $472,000. Nearly 400 individuals will have gone through the program when it ends after five years. Monday’s ceremony graduated the final 94 participants.

Austin resident Fatima Ward-Johnson was one of those helped by the program. In business for nearly a year, Ward-Johnson said sales are brisk at Accessories by Binx, thanks to the financial knowledge she acquired.

The program taught her the difference between a “want” and a “need,” a valuable lesson for Ward-Johnson, who admits to spending more than $2,000 on shoes and clothes. Curtailing her spending allowed her to put more money in her business for marketing and inventory.

“It helped me to grow and become a better steward of my finances,” Ward-Johnson said.

The $2 million program was funded through a partnership between Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, U.S. Bank and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Participants have up to a year to reach their $2,000 savings goal.

SmartSavers has two goals: change how people view money and create wealth, said Pierre Dunagan, Bethel’s senior director of family economic success. Having a degree, owning a home or a business are assets that create wealth, he said. Courses on homeownership and business had the highest number of participants, Dunagan noted.

“People are looking for ways to increase their income through entrepreneurship and with interest so low, people are taking advantage of that,” he said.

The program teaches budgeting, financial planning, debt management and investing. But Bethel wanted the program to offer more than just class work. Challenging people to start a business or buy a home gives them “an opportunity to put into practice the things they learn,” Dunagan said.

“That’s the real significance of the program,” Bethel’s CEO Lori Vallelunga added. “These are lessons and skills that are going to live well beyond this initial investment of theirs and ours.”

In her speech to the graduates, Preckwinkle seemed a bit envious. “Wish I could find a program that can match by saving dollars two for one,” Preckwinkle quipped, adding that Cook County could learn a thing or two from Bethel’s program.

“In Cook County we have the Bureau of Economic Development, and we are working to apply the same focus on financial literacy and budgeting that this program is built on,” she said.

Preckwinkle also noted the students’ accomplishments go beyond just being financially savvy, but also helps stabilize communities.

“What you have achieved is the American dream. I wish you all the very best,” she said.

West Chicago resident Felicia Gibson achieved her American dream. Gibson knew she wanted a home, but no savings and poor credit made the task daunting. So she put it in God’s hands. The program helped Gibson trim her budget by eliminating cable and renting movies from Red Box instead. By the program’s end, Gibson had her $2,000 saved.

Now Gibson is having her house built from the ground up through a program from Habitat for Humanity. Her next goal is to finish her master’s degree and open a home daycare center.

“It doesn’t feel real yet,” Gibson said. “I’m going from being a Section-8 recipient to being a brand new homeowner in a brand new house.”

The program allowed 15-year real estate agent Geneva Reed to expand her business. Reed, of East Garfield Park, will use her funds to buy computer equipment, software and build a website.

More importantly, Reed said the program’s value lies in not just providing the ability to buy equipment, but becoming more money savvy. She said she has a better grip on her finances and understands the dos and don’ts of not mixing family and business money together.

“The information learned was just phenomenal, and I was able to share that with family members too,” said Reed, owner of Adonai Reality Investment Group.

Gibson hopes the program can be reincarnated in some other form. She called the program an economic engine.

“There are so many people who need this, and I think it would open up doors of opportunity even within the city,” she said. “That is my goal: to bring jobs back to urban areas.”