“If you can’t save someone you love, save someone else.”

It’s a phrase that drives Davina Lani to help people who have experienced incarceration and homelessness.

People, she said, like her brother.

Lani, a Regions branch manager in Indianapolis, partners with colleague Joe Adams to teach financial education to at-risk men ages 18 to 26 through the We CANN Champions program. The initiative is led by Community Action of Greater Indianapolis (CAGI).

“I’m passionate about this partnership,” said Lani. “If we just take the time to talk with these young men about their finances, we can help them create a better life. We’ve had class participants tell us, ‘I really need this.’”

Creating a better life in all aspects is the mission of the We CANN Champions program. Modeled after the Youth Opportunity AmeriCorps program, We CANN focuses on reaching young adults in high-crime areas. Class sizes are small – only 10 or so people per class – to maximize personal support.

The goal? To help people become civic-minded, employed members of their community, ideally before – but sometimes after – incarceration.

Actually, according to Val Tate, it’s more basic than that.

“Our main goal is we want you to stay alive, be free and be safe,” said Tate, Community Development and Learning Development Director with CAGI. “This really is a training ground. It’s about helping them do well in society and make good choices.”

Those choices include tutoring for those who do not have their high school diploma. They also include qualifying for workforce certifications. Champions work toward earning designations in construction, transportation, information technology, welding, manufacturing and culinary job training.

“Our champions work on job skills every single day,” said Tate. “When they’re here, they have to be present and focused.”

I believe everyone is a champion.
Val Tate, Community Development and Learning Development Director with CAGI

In addition to workforce training, the We CANN program includes mental fitness. Tate describes it as a pro-social environment where members are responsible for each other and offer peer support.

“We focus on coping with life,” said Tate. “That includes checking in with each other regularly. It also includes random drug screenings to help make sure our champions remain in their jobs. Our coaching team will ask questions like, ‘What are the triggers for you?’ if someone fails a drug test. This is about providing a supportive environment to help them succeed.”

In teaching eight financial education sessions, Lani and Adams are focused on helping members achieve a greater chance at financial success. Topics range from basic banking terms to discussing money management, the wise use of credit, and building financial confidence.

“The group is very engaged,” said Lani. “They ask a lot of questions. We discuss the difference between wants and needs. And the subjects we cover are helping them see their financial future in a different light.”

Because financial matters are so personal, Lani and Adams work to build rapport with group members. One way they do so is by openly sharing personal experiences and challenges.

For Adams, those challenges include a complete life change when he was in the fifth grade. Adams had attended private school from Kindergarten through fourth grade. His father was a successful business owner, and life was good.

Until it wasn’t.

“In an instant, everything changed,” said Adams. “It was really difficult for me to see my mom struggle.”

Following his parents’ divorce, Adams’ mother worked two jobs while taking college courses. Adams said his father lost his once-thriving business – and lost touch with his son for 10 years due to drug addiction.

Davina Lani and Joe Adams

It’s that kind of raw candor from Lani and Adams that has built bridges with the We CANN Champions.

“We absolutely love Davina, and Joe is one of the guys now,” said Tate. “Joe makes himself vulnerable in sharing when everyone in the group rates how their day is going from a 1 to 10. He may look completely different than they do, but he’s connected with them. It’s a good thing.”

What’s the experience meant to Adams?

“I see myself in some of them,” he said. “I remember being 18 or 20 and wanting to own a business. This program is about encouraging them to save as much as they can, even if it’s just $10 a month – saving for an emergency fund, for a car, maybe even one day for a house.”

Dreaming bigger is a key aspect of the We CANN model.

Near the end of the course, champions travel to Washington, D.C., as a reward for their successful completion of the program and to further broaden their horizons.

“Many of our champions have never been outside of their neighborhoods, let alone out of the state,” said Tate. “This provides an opportunity for them to learn about American history through a special life experience.”

Tate and the CAGI team are providing positive reinforcement, instilling a sense of self-confidence members can call on after they graduate.

“I believe everyone is a champion,” said Tate. “People just have to become acquainted with the champion in themselves. We encourage our graduates to reach out to someone else, to go champion someone else and help provide them with the resources they need.”

The program’s approach is something Davina Lani thinks could have made an impact for her own family.

“If someone had tried to reach out this way with my brother, things could look different for him today,” she said.

The ability to make an impact is what inspires Adams.

“Motivating people is what I get excited about,” he said.

That excitement translates into opportunities.

“Education is how we create access for our champions,” said Tate. “Learning about finances increases their chances for success.”