Every year SecureFutures recognizes one individual volunteer and one partner organization for their contribution to our mission of teen financial capability empowerment. The award is named to honor our founder, and this year we are thrilled to celebrate Chris Nienhaus as the 2023 Lloyd Levin Difference Maker Volunteer.
“I’ve got two things. Life experience and an excellent credit score.” For a theology teacher with no formal money management or economics background, those two things were the foundation for her becoming a personal finance teacher. Chris Nienhaus’ connection with SecureFutures began during her early tenure as a theology teacher at Messmer High School. Approximately 16 years ago, SecureFutures, known then as Make A Difference Wisconsin, reached out to the high school with an innovative idea. Introduce financial literacy to students through a class that students were required to take, and that class wound up being theology.
The high school did eventually offer a personal finance class but in her fifth year at Messmer the educator who taught the class announced his retirement. “I said, what’s going to happen to that class?” Upon learning that it would no longer be offered Chris went to the board and to the principal and said, “Let him mentor me for a semester and I’ll teach the class.” With passion as her compass, Chris embraced the challenge and within her first year of teaching the class she was able to make it a requirement for graduation. And it’s been that way ever since. Because all students must take the class as a junior or senior, Chris got to meet every student that graduated. Something she considers “a cool bonus.”
Chris retired from Messmer last December but continues to support SecureFutures through her involvement with the Education Committee and in the classroom as a Money Coach. Her distinctive teaching approach is characterized by storytelling, sharing her personal journey of young marriage, early parenthood, and the financial trials that accompanied it. These narratives bridge the gap between theory and practice, allowing students to see the importance of making good financial decisions in the context of real-life scenarios. “We’ve got to reach students before they make the big mistakes – before anything bad happens. No one wants to live paycheck to paycheck, it’s too stressful. Let’s learn how to swim first before we jump in the deep end.”
Chris believes strongly in teen financial education, especially in the Milwaukee area, where she says there’s just not enough access to that kind of education. “When you don’t have the opportunity to learn financial education, that’s when you see generational poverty. Over 85% of my students live below the poverty line, so it’s important to reach those students.”
Chris’s impact extends far beyond the classroom as evidenced by heartwarming encounters with former students who still carry her teachings with them. “I’ll run into students at the mall, for instance, and I’ll ask them bluntly, are you here for your wants or your needs? And they’ll giggle a little because they know exactly what I’m talking about.” Another encounter she speaks fondly of is a hotel receptionist whom she recognized as one of her former students and who told her she still uses the money-saving skills she learned in her class after graduating. “One of the finest things to have happen is for a teacher to be acknowledged outside of the classroom.”
Kristen Ruhl, Vice President of Programs, says the decision to name Chris Difference Maker of the Year was unanimous due to her steadfast support of every member of SecureFutures. “Chris is always the first to pitch in and her insights have directly contributed to the enhancement of our programs. Beyond supporting our team and the volunteers she welcomed into her classroom, and beyond even the 600 students she introduced to SecureFutures, she has made an immeasurable impact on our community. She has touched thousands of lives as an educator and volunteer and truly commits herself to the idea that “it takes a village” to raise and guide the young people in our community. “
Chris exemplifies the transformative role of a dedicated educator in fostering financial capability. Her impact is a testament to the difference one passionate individual can make and this award celebrates her enduring dedication and commitment to helping create a brighter future for teens and young adults. “It’s such a beautiful honor to be recognized for this award. I’ve loved what I do for a long time and if I can help somebody else out, then I’ve done something worthwhile, and that’s what we’re here for.”