TRAVERSE CITY — Katie Doornbos learned about the rewards of saving early.
"I had a piggy bank and when it came winter I'd empty it out so I could go skiing," said Doornbos, 17.
Now the high school senior is helping others with their personal finances at a new student-operated branch of Members Credit Union.
The branch opened in October at Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District's Career-Tech Center and operates like any other Members branch, said Marc McKellar, director of business development for Members Credit Union. Student tellers can open accounts and perform everyday transactions for branch members, though only TBAISD students, faculty and their families can take advantage of the services.
"It's an educational environment but a full-service branch," McKellar said. "You can do 99 percent of everything you can do at a regular branch."
The branch is a pilot program of the Career-Tech Center's Accounting and Office Technology program curriculum and gives students hands-on experience in credit union services and personal finance. Students are employees of the credit union but receive school grades for the co-op class.
"They get credit and they get paid. It's a win-win situation for them," said Angela Thomas, a Members Credit Union employee supervisor who oversees the student tellers.
Thomas said the students start out by learning about the credit union and its services, then practice cashing checks and making withdrawals and deposits using a computer training mode. Finally they're ready to wait on members, first with Thomas beside them, then with more independence.
"They all have learned it academically. Now they're learning it practically," said McKellar, adding that besides cash-handling skills the students are picking up computer operations, sales and service skills.
Doornbos is one of three Career-Tech students who take turns staffing the branch from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Located in the Career-Tech Center's Commons area across from a student-operated cafe, the branch boasts three teller stations, information racks and even potted plants.
"It feels really cool to be sitting behind the desk instead of being in front of it and asking people to do things," said Doornbos, who also attends Traverse City West Senior High School. "It's a big step for me. At first I felt weird that I could look at accounts of other kids my age because they might not want me to. But now I feel like they know it's real business. I don't share it."
Working with the students has proved less difficult than working with most adults, Thomas said.
"It's easier because they're young, they're moldable, they've all had jobs before this one. For professionalism they're more trainable. They're not as set in their ways," she said.
Though the branch is open only during the school year, the students will have an opportunity to work at regular branches after their graduation, Thomas said.
"We are hoping that all three want to stay on with Members in the summer because we have 100 employees and people are taking vacations," she added.
Kaitlyn Vezina began handling money when she was 4, at her parents' dirt bike track near Kingsley. Now she hopes to study business in college in preparation for a banking career.
"I've been doing this kind of stuff a long time, since I could do simple math," said Vezina, 17, a senior at the Career-Tech Center and Traverse City Central High School. "I love the interaction with people. Some of them are easygoing, some are iffy. I love being able to talk to people."
Helping kids understand finances is a main goal of the program, said McKellar, who comes from a generation when personal finance education consisted of "two weeks of learning how to balance a checkbook" sandwiched between "learning how to cook and how to keep score on a bowling card."
"I thought it was important that kids understand it," McKellar said. "So we're hoping to start educating our student body as well. The kids that work at our branch are interested in reaching out to the kids in their classes and letting them know what the credit union offers," from savings accounts to parent-approved checking accounts and debit cards.
"If they're working with the parent, the school and the credit union when they're 17, by the time they're 18 and get out on their own, they'll know what they're doing financially," he said.