Although they offer many of the same services, credit unions operate in a fundamentally different way than banks, one founded on the philosophy of “people helping people”. Credit unions were typically founded by friends, like neighbors, workers, and people who worship together. Such is the case for United Poles Federal Credit Union. Thirteen Polish community members in Perth Amboy, N.J., founded the credit union, which to this day, is an integral part of that community’s identity.
In the 1950s, the Polish community in Perth Amboy was a tight-knit one, gathering at one local banquet hall for all of their celebrations, from weddings to christenings to graduations.
When Polish immigrants were having trouble getting loans and other banking services due to the language barrier and other challenges, the community came together once again for a very different purpose than celebrations. Hearing about the cooperative concept of credit unions, 13 members of that community saw a solution, and formed their own credit union in 1965—United Poles Federal Credit Union. Their start was modest, with an initial deposit of just $3,200 contributed by its members. United Poles FCU wasn’t anything like a typical bank start-up in other ways too, lacking plush offices and expensive furniture—the credit union’s official headquarters was a room it rented above a local bar.
United Poles FCU grew to include 400 members of the community within ten years, and it wasn’t until the late 1970s that the credit union hired a full-time manager. By the 1980s they had grown enough to open their first brick and mortar branch, the same building that is its headquarters today in Perth Amboy. Over the past few decades, the credit union has grown to include another branch location in Linden, with a total of 2,200 community members, and $38 million in assets.
The credit union’s current CEO, Iwona Karpeta, came to work at the credit union in 1996 as a college student. She traveled to the U.S. from Poland for an internship, working on a thesis on the credit union movement. She stayed, moving up the ladder to a teller, loan officer, loan supervisor, and so on, eventually becoming CEO in 2005. She is only the fourth leader of the credit union in it’s over 50 years of service.
“I’ve worked here for 20 years and it’s more than just a job,” says Karpeta. “At the end of the day, it’s about helping people. And that’s exactly how the credit union started over 50 years ago. People saw a need to help each other, and today we’re trying to do the same.”
You can feel the sense of community at the credit union. All five staff members, including Karpeta, speak the language. Each of them has been with the credit union for at least 10 years or more. They know most of their members by their first names and even know their voices when they call. They now serve the great grandchildren of some of the credit union’s original members and have watched them grow over the years.
“We know our members,” says Karpeta. “We know every wedding, funeral, birth…you name it. It’s a small community, and even though it has spread out across the state, it is still very tight.”
At a credit union, you’re much more than just a customer. For more information on United Poles Federal Credit Union, including how to join, visit www.unitedpolesfcu.com or find another credit union near you at www.BankingYouCanTrust.com.