Gordon and Emerie Duke dreamed of a larger location after opening a chicken wings restaurant inside a Nicholasville gas station in 2011.
A year later, they made it happen with the help of Back on Track, a United Way of the Bluegrass program that offers $4,000 grants to people who save money to start or expand their business, go back to college or buy their first home.
"It helped us out a whole lot," said Gordon Duke. "There was always someone to talk to."
The program has its roots in a $1 million federal grant awarded to United Way of the Bluegrass in 2010, said financial stability coordinator Geoff Parker. The organization matched the $1 million grant and developed the program, which began in 2011.
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To qualify for the free grants, participants must be below certain income and net-worth levels, and they must prove they're able to save enough of their own money.
The program has more than 180 people either enrolled or graduated with more than 230 spots remaining, Parker said.
For those seeking to start or expand small businesses or go back to school, they must save $1,000 over the course of six months to two years. That $1,000 will then be matched with $4,000 in grant funding. For those looking to become homeowners, they must save $2,000 and will then be awarded $4,000.
"We wanted to be sure people who needed some assistance for starting their business or going back to school were able to reach their savings goal a little bit quicker," Parker said. "A home purchase, in most situations, will be the largest purchase you make in your lifetime.
"We want those people to demonstrate they have that savings capability."
Another element of the program is a requirement that participants take 10 hours of financial literacy classes. In addition, each person is required to take several additional hours of courses specific to their goal.
For the Dukes, that meant learning about business management, and those lessons proved helpful when they moved their Wildcat Wings restaurant last August from a Shell station to a former Popeyes restaurant off Main Street in Nicholasville.
"We've almost tripled our business from the old location," Gordon Duke said.
The most popular of the grants, though, has been home ownership, Parker said.
"I think it has a lot to do with the market," Parker said. "Now's the best time to buy a home."
There are more than 60 individuals enrolled in the home ownership program with 13 others already graduated.
Among the graduates is Charlon Smith, 39, a pharmacy technician who bought a home off Russell Cave Road in January.
Smith said the required classes prepared her for the responsibilities of being a homeowner.
"They're very educational," she said. "They inform you and get you prepared on what you're going to have to learn with being a home-owner."
The program also helped her fulfill a long-term goal.
"I'm the first homeowner in my family," she said. "I'm the first one in four generations to own my own home."
AT A GLANCE
Back on Track program
About: A United Way of the Bluegrass program that offers $4,000 grants for business, education and home ownership after participants save a certain amount and take required courses in financial literacy.
Eligibility: Income limits and other restrictions apply.Learn more or apply: Uwbg.org/backontrack or call 211 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org