Elm Grove man imparts financial knowledge to youth

July 29, 2014

The village of Elm Grove has another native son to be proud of in the form of Tom Parks.

Parks, a retirement plan specialist with MassMutual, was recently honored by his company for his steadfast volunteer work through Make A Difference-Wisconsin. Through Make A Difference, Parks is responsible for both creating financial literacy curriculum materials and teaching them to high school students in the Milwaukee area.

"I encounter clients, people who have good jobs and have been working for awhile, that still don't understand some very basic financial issues," Parks said. "People cannot be expected to engage in responsible financial behavior unless somebody tells them what that behavior is."

Parks grew up in Elm Grove and attended Marquette High School. Most of the schools he works with are in the inner city of Milwaukee, but he says that socioeconomic status or demographics don't seem to differentiate the availability of classes addressing fiscal responsibility.

"Nobody teaches it. People say 'You learn that at home.' Well that's not necessarily an option for some kids," Parks said. "I think too many people assume that the basics of finance are something that somehow you know inherently."

Having worked with Make A Difference for five years now, Parks was rewarded by his company. But the reward was not gifted to him but to the organization for which he volunteers. And that's exactly the way Parks would have it.

"I was very honored, but I (admitted) that I'm there for selfish reasons," he said. "It's going to make my life easier when these kids eventually become my clients, and I think that society will be better off for having better-educated people. If I didn't enjoy doing it, I wouldn't do it. I love working with the kids."

Parks, who first became involved with Make A Difference through a fellow employee at a previous job, takes special pride in tackling the most difficult of classrooms.

"Whenever there seems to be a challenge with students not being interested, that's where they send me," he said. "There was one time when two other volunteers decided they could not continue working with some kids. It was difficult, but it was a challenge worth pursuing. If I can get just one kid in the class to learn something, there's enough value in it for it to be worth it."

After graduating from Marquette, Parks attended St. Norbert College. His only extended time outside of Wisconsin was spent in South America doing the thing that seems to come naturally to him — volunteer work.

While Parks was glad to come home from the other side of the equator, he has continued to use his fluency in Spanish through his volunteer efforts, as it allows him to communicate with a large number of students that might otherwise be difficult for him to reach.

Parks, who has three children and is married to a woman he met in Ecuador, commended his company for their policy of rewarding employees for their volunteer efforts, but was even more appreciative of how they do it.

"The thing I like about it is that the real beneficiary is the organization," he said. "If that had not been there, I would not have let them put my name in the running for it. (Make A Difference) is great, and they're the ones who should be getting the credit."

MassMutual donates a total of $155,000 through its annual Community Service Awards program.

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