Sandy Smith has been combating the language barrier her entire life.
Born in Guatemala and raised in Gurnee, Smith spoke Spanish at home and English in school. As a child, she served as a translator for her Spanish-speaking parents when it came to shopping and functioning in a predominantly English-speaking community.
“I learned English at school and Spanish at home,” said Smith, who today is a community development lender at The Bank of Edwardsville in Alton. “I was a child who had to go to the bank and places like that to translate for them when I was 5 or 6 years old. It was one of those things I knew my family had struggled with.”
This childhood memory came to mind when she came to the metro-east about three years ago and recognized how the banking industry had been under serving the region’s Hispanic community, the largest concentration being in Fairmont City. The metro-east village that straddles both St. Clair and Madison counties has about 2,600 people, of which 80 percent are Hispanic.
She also found out the language barrier kept the local Spanish-speaking community from being knowledgeable about basic banking resources, such as home loans. Most local Hispanic residents resorted to renting the same homes during the course of 15 to 20 years and many cashed their paychecks at grocery stores, where they paid hefty fees, as high as 10 percent, to make the transaction.
Smith began researching the community and ways to help reach these people. As a bilingual banker, she hosted seminars at the village library to learn more about the community’s needs. She suggested opening a branch in Fairmont City that would cater to Spanish-speaking residents.
Last month, The Bank of Edwardsville opened such a branch inside the village library, at 2870 N. 44th St., where Smith, who serves as the business and diversity development coordinator, and other bankers and tellers are bilingual. The new branch also includes a program called My Community Homeland, which was designed to educate Spanish-speaking residents about consumer banking.
“It’s really a nice thing to tell the community that you will have anybody who can help you in your own language to where you will understand,” she said.
The branch opened its doors last month. Senior vice president of retail banking Rob Schwartz said that within the first two weeks, 40 new checking accounts were opened.
“Which is a phenomenal number,” Schwartz said. “The word is getting out. It’s very good. It’s been really positive.”
So far, the branch has lent $2.8 million in home loans to 48 borrowers, Schwartz said. The bank is now looking into developing a second bilingual branch across the river in St. Louis. The bank opened its first Missouri branch last March in South St. Louis County, the first to open outside the metro-east in its 148-year history. The new Missouri branch at Lindbergh Boulevard and Sappington Road is a commercial lending office that also provides bank transactions through a video teller machine.
The bank also has plans to open a commercial loan production office in Clayton, Mo., by the first quarter of next year.
Smith said she has also learned how industrious and financially responsible many from the local Hispanic community are. She said most have no debt which has so far led to zero delinquencies.
“And a good portfolio for us,” she said.
Most importantly, she said, these residents are now able to buy a home and invest in their properties, ultimately making investments in their community. She credits village leaders for their forward thinking that has led to its first bilingual branch.
“It took a while, it took three years to go up and running, but in banking that was very fast,” Smith said. “I was shocked we were able to get it open as fast as we did. Now, I look forward to seeing how successful it can be and get the word out.”
“I’m proud that we’re able to help these families. I’m excited and I hope to continue to do well. I think it will.”