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She spent $5,000 — half of her life savings — to teach kids financial literacy. Here's why

LaShea Reaves, founder of 8 Cents in a Jar, an Apopka, Florida-based nonprofit that teaches financial literacy to students in marginalized communities.

Growing up below the poverty line in Riviera Beach, Florida, LaShea Reaves never learned how to manage money. Throughout the 1990s, her family relied on public assistance. She almost lost her home twice.

So in 2016, nine years after graduating college, she took $5,000 — half of her life savings — and launched 8 Cents in a Jar. The Apopka, Florida-based nonprofit aims to help students and their families break the cycle of poverty.

Reaves says her organization has helped 2,238 students pay off debts, open bank accounts, buy cars or homes and generate more than $50,000 in new wealth.

"Our sweet spot is students that may feel forgotten," she tells CNBC Make It.

On Wednesday, Reaves was honored as one of CNBC's financial literacy leaders at a virtual town hall event featuring U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. But for Reaves, it wasn't long ago that she was charting her own path to financial stability.

An eye-opening conversation about personal finance

At age 14, Reaves lost her mother, tossing her family into emotional and financial turmoil. Alongside her dad and three sisters, the family spent years below the poverty line — $20,128 for a family of five at the time, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In 2002, Reaves decided to make a fresh start at college. The problem, she says: "I wasn't even accepted to college."

Instead, she says, she hitched a ride with friends to Florida A&M University, went straight to the admissions office and applied on the spot. After being denied, she told admissions officers about her challenges and motivation — and the university changed its mind.

She graduated cum laude in 2007 with a degree in business and a minor in economics.

While she was still a student, Reaves says, her father died in hospice care, leaving her the sole manager of family finances. She took out a new student loan to help afford her father's burial and her own expenses. By 2005, she was $62,000 in debt.

At her part-time bank teller job, she says, she had an eye-opening conversation about personal finance with her boss.

"I told him about my desire to buy a house," she says. "And he was like, 'Well, what's stopping you?'"

A battle worth fighting

Reaves quickly started seeking personal finance advice from her colleagues at Hancock Bank. Her first priorities: paying down debt and saving to buy a house.

She's still paying her debt — currently down to $49,000, she says. The house, however, quickly became a reality.

"After working three jobs in college and becoming a financial junkie, I purchased my first home as a graduation gift," Reaves says. "For the first time in my life, I was no longer a recipient of public assistance."

Almost a decade later, she decided it was time to give back. Reaves says she now spends 70 hours per week volunteering at 8 Cents in a Jar, while working a full-time job as a vice president and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion program manager at First Horizon Bank.

"I wake up at 4:15 a.m. every day and volunteer until about 8 a.m.," she says. "Then again from 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. on most days after my full-time job, plus weekends."

Students from 8 Cents in a Jar participate in 'The Stock Market Challenge', an online simulation of the global markets meant to teach them about economics and investing.
8 Cents in a Jar

The time is worth it, says Reaves: One of her students is on track to be the first person in his family to ever own real estate.

But the work, she notes, shouldn't be necessary. Only 21 states require personal finance classes in high school, according to data from Next Gen Personal Finance. Three other states offer the classes, but don't require them for graduation.

At the Wednesday town hall, Cardona emphasized the need to address that gap. "When I talk to students now, they talk about the need for financial literacy learning in a practical sense," he said.

For Reaves, that'll be easier said than done: Especially in underserved communities, students tend to have different individual needs. Still, she says, it's a battle worth fighting.

"Every financial literacy journey is going to be different," she says. "There needs to be care and attention to everyone's needs, and that's what makes us unique."

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