On Valentine’s Day in Venezuela, Tabatha De Leon, then 7, saw a rosy, blooming business opportunity.

At the advice of her parents, young De Leon had stowed away money earned from chores, though some of it was hidden so well in a Hello Kitty wallet that it took weeks to re-discover. With the saved money she could find, De Leon and a friend devised a cascading profit plan ahead of Valentine’s Day that started with buying up one bouquet of flowers from the florist.

“We were geniuses! Then, we didn’t sell much – a sister’s boyfriend was our only customer – and we used that money to buy a lot of candy,” she said. “Luckily, it was important for my parents to teach me to be a saver, to put away money for your dreams and goals.”

De Leon often reflects on the importance of those early money lessons, both as an Affordable Mortgage Banker at BMO Harris Bank and in the classroom as a financial education volunteer for Make A Difference – Wisconsin. De Leon said her parents, both pharmacists when she was growing up in Venezuela, gave her a practical background in saving and budgeting. She carried those financial skills with her as she moved to the United States, went through high school and paid for college with a funky array of jobs – from lead glass repair and selling gyros to babysitting and dancing with a flamenco group – before starting her career as a mortgage banker. Confronting “totally foreign” financial aspects like credit scores and loan applications in her new country compelled her to share her expertise as a Make A Difference – Wisconsin volunteer.

De Leon has been a dedicated classroom financial education volunteer for the last five years in both of the main programs at Make A Difference – Wisconsin, Money Sense and Money Coach. During a recent talk from an office at one of BMO’s Cudahy branches, De Leon said she makes special considerations to outline potentially new financial ideas for teens who have moved here from outside of the U.S. All in all, though she said teens from every background quickly latch onto real-world money concepts when given the chance. Those “great students” include Taleavia Cole at Milwaukee Collegiate Academy, whom De Leon said had never considered something like a bank account as important but, after the lessons, “really understood the responsibility of saving and budgeting.”

And they are lessons that go deeper than a single class. “I get calls from the girls,” De Leon said. “I want to be an ally for their financial lives.”

-by Justin Kern, Make A Difference – Wisconsin Marketing and Communications Manager