In 2009, Marlena Clay-Boone had $68,000 in debt and seemingly nowhere to turn.
Then 57 years old, Clay-Boone had just gone through a divorce and had to use her credit cards to pay for several home repairs that came one after the other.
Clay-Boone learned about Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Maryland and Delaware (CCCS) from a supervisor and contacted the nonprofit on Frederick Road in Catonsville about digging her way out.
That 20-minute phone call changed her life, she said.
"I was very emotional that day and the (CCCS representative) spoke to me and told me about the program and how it worked," said Clay-Boone, an Arbutus resident for 24 years. "I never dreamed that I had that much debt."
A single mother for much of the time while she raised her son, Shelton, now 40, Clay-Boone knew how to stretch a dollar. She was willing to work overtime at her job at Verizon when those dollars couldn't be stretched far enough.
But in 2009, she was in over her head.
"They put me on a different financial pace," Clay-Boone said of CCCS. "I feel a lot better. What they allowed me to do was to put my bills together on one monthly bill which helps me see what I have left."
"It helps me to manage a lot better," she said.
Not yet halfway through the five-year program, Clay-Boone has paid off nearly $30,000 of her debt as CCCS helped her get her interest rates lowered through a debt management plan.
Clay-Boone is one of the tens of thousands of clients that CCCS helps each year.
Funding for CCCS, according to its website, comes from voluntary contributions from creditors, businesses, civic organizations and the community.
In 2010, the most recent year with complete data, CCCS had 32,400 new clients, 65 percent of which came from outside of Maryland and Delaware, said Deanna Booker, a community outreach manager with the company.
The amount of debt ranged from $1,000 to $400,000, according to a release from the company.
Those debt problems cross socio-economic lines, Booker said, whether people are unemployed or making six figures.
On average, those seeking help have an annual income of $42,108 and owe $59,642 to 13 creditors, according to a release from the company.
The 13 creditors come in many forms but often are credit card companies, said Booker, a Catonsville resident.
"I've seen people go from just totally, totally rock bottom from a financial point view and watched them come up the ladder," Booker said.
The debt management plan allows people to pay back credit card debt, unsecured and secured loans and medical bills, according to the CCCS website.
If a person visits CCCS at its Frederick Road office and chooses to enter the program, Booker said CCCS requires the person to cut up all their credit cards before leaving at the end of their first visit.
In January, CCCS counseled 1,300 people in its offices, which are open 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday.
The office has a five-gallon jug filled with shards of credit cards in nearly every room in the office.
The clients learn how to budget, save and pay bills on time.
"They're learning new habits and ways to turn themselves around," Booker said.
"They (also) need support. 'Once I'm taught these things, how do I set them in motion, how do I keep them in motion?'"
In addition to teaching these skills, CCCS can often lower payments and reduce late fees. Those reductions are up to each individual creditor, Booker noted.
The company charges clients $8 per creditor per month up to $35, Booker said, noting that in certain cases those fees may be waived.
Catonsville resident Erin Dickerson is a counseling manager with CCCS who meets with people at the Frederick Road office.
Often the difficult situations she sees include people who are either unemployed or under-employed.
She said many have made the mistake of waiting too long and getting too deeply into debt before asking for help.
"Everybody needs help at some point in their life. Don't be afraid to ask," Dickerson said. "I think if people would speak up a little sooner, they wouldn't find themselves in such a difficult situation."
Though Clay-Boone was laid off from her job at Verizon in April, she said she has still managed to pay off some of her debt with her unemployment checks and pension.
"I want to work, so I can pay off my bills a little faster," she said. .
Despite being unemployed for 10 months, Clay-Boone said she has a better grasp on her financial situation and plans to see the program to the end.
"CCCS has been very inspirational to me and very helpful," Clay-Boone said. "I'm not giving up."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun