Karen Heller: Classes in financial literacy opening doors in West Phila.

On Saturday mornings for the last few months, Wharton professor Keith Weigelt has taught West Philadelphia residents - they call him Mr. Keith - about money, earning, saving, investing. For many students, this was the first time they learned about mutual funds.

"White households have 20 times the amount of median wealth as black households," says Weigelt, 61. "We're trying to reduce the wealth gap by teaching financial literacy. I had this woman in tears telling me that, for the first time, she feels she can get out of poverty."

Gail Logan is one such student. To her, Weigelt's course is a revelation. "For me to take a class at Wharton for free is unbelievable," she says, spreading her arms as if in flight. With decades of experience in the mental-health-care field, Logan, 59, lost her job last fall and had trouble claiming benefits. Now, she's creating a business plan.

Later this month, Logan and neighbors like Sherri Mitchell, 37, will be among the first graduates of Investing in Ourselves, an inspirational program promoting physical and financial health while building community leadership. It was founded by Jill Bazelon, 36, who holds a Penn doctorate in education. Except students don't truly graduate. They keep learning, while teaching other residents.

The program, encompassing 250 students, offers courses in nutritional cooking, exercise, and GED preparation at Sayre-Morris Rec Center. Classes are free. Actually, better than free: Students receive investment seed money, gift certificates, even SEPTA tokens.

"There are no barriers to who can join this program," Bazelon says. Four generations enrolled in cooking classes. Financial students ranged in age from teenagers to great-grandparents.

Investing in Ourselves costs almost nothing to operate - a small grant, some of Weigelt's Wharton research funding, and, inexplicably, aid from the Japanese government. The staff is almost entirely volunteer.

"It shows what you can do with not much money," says Weigelt, who has taught financial literacy in neighborhood high schools for four years. "We're trying to reduce all the barriers." Now, he's meeting with church groups to increase the reach of his program.

"I learned about making a budget, saving for student loans, getting our credit together, joining a credit union, helping my fiancé's business," says Mitchell, a former chef. "It's like a lightbulb went off to help me fulfill my dream. My soul is happy."

Devante Gray, 19, who works for his father, Arnett Woodall, at his West Phillie Produce, sells fresh fruit and vegetables at the nutrition class Monday at lower costs than those of grocery stores. "I'm a meat person, a fast-food person, but now I might become vegetarian," says Patricia Mason, who attends the program with her daughter.

Investing in Ourselves' goal is to give residents the tools to launch their own programs. "Students gain the most when they see they have an impact, and we're giving them confidence," Bazelon tells me. "The health and fitness aspects are great, but it's really about the financial piece, learning the skills and getting the necessary education to be successful."

Graduates will lead nutrition classes. Weigelt and veteran students will initiate "sort of a mini-credit union" to lend one another money while pooling resources to micro-invest in a 500 Index mutual fund. "I'm trying to figure out how to scale this up," says Weigelt. He and Bazelon plan for continued growth, expanding into other neighborhoods.

"We're giving people more opportunities so they can see some light. Business education creates opportunity," Weigelt tells me.

"I have been amazed and gratified by the response in the community," Bazelon says. "It's been really exciting to watch people become invested in the program, the development of confidence. This is really a leadership development program for the community. We're trying to give people the necessary tools to be successful."


Contact Karen Heller

at 215-854-2586, kheller@phillynews.com, or follow @kheller on Twitter.

To learn more about Investing

in Ourselves, visit investinginourselves.org.