Last week, I had the privilege of joining with other volunteers to help provide financial literacy training  for a group of high school students interning this summer with the judicial branch.

Those students followed in the footsteps of thousands of other high school students in Massachusetts who have participated in the  M. Ellen Carpenter Financial Literacy Program.  The program,  established in 2004, is run as a joint venture  between the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of  Massachusetts and the Boston Bar Association.   The BBA maintains a collection of articles and photos describing the impact of the program over the years on its Beyond the Billable blog here.  The program is funded by a generous grant from the Charles P. Normandin Fund.

A scroll through those pages makes it clear that the  program would not be able to flourish each year without a dedicated group of  court personnel, bar association staff, and professionals.  Without the vision and dedication of the program’s namesake, however,  the program likely would not exist at all.

M. Ellen Carpenter, who was elected President of the Boston Bar Association in 2004, was an accomplished insolvency attorney.  After her election,  she sought out ways to highlight the substantial pro bono work, educational efforts, and public outreach of the bankruptcy bar.   Together with
then Chief Judge Joan N. Feeney of the Bankruptcy Court,  they decided to develop a course focused on teaching high school students basic financial literacy skills.

Ellen took action immediately to ensure the vision was realized.   She  appointed a task force, chaired by Boston attorney Janet Bostwick.    This effort  produced  a  program that has run ever since — with appropriate updating along the way — but with the same basic structure:  three in-school sessions taught by volunteer lawyers focused on  budgeting,  use of credit cards, and strategies for large purchases.

The final session of the course, named “Consequences” is held at the federal bankruptcy court.  Students have the opportunity to meet with judges, court personnel, and  lawyers to participate in mock hearings based on a typical case of an individual debtor.   That is followed by a discussion of the lessons learned as well as the role of the judicial system generally.

Ellen had a monumental role in envisioning and creating the program.  Tragically, she  passed away suddenly in December of 2006.  The program was soon thereafter named in her honor.  Although today there are many organizations offering financial literacy programs, the program she helped design was one of the first in the nation and remains a model program benefiting thousands.   Volunteers for the program, as well as participants, can thank Ellen for her impact in building a  program teaching students  responsible financial decision making.