[caption id="attachment_44235" align="alignleft" width="300"] The Jaworski family (middle) won the $10,000 grand prize after participating in Redwood Credit Union's first "Amazing Savers" contest. (Eric Gneckow photo)[/caption]

SANTA ROSA -- When Redwood Credit Union President and CEO Brett Martinez took to the podium tonight to present the $10,000 grand prize for the institution's first "Amazing Savers" contest, he had an unexpected surprise for the runners up.

The grand prize in the competition to improve family finances would ultimately go to the Santa Rosa-based Jaworski family, but the remaining four teams each would go home with a $1,000 check themselves.

"As you can see from these families, each has improved their financial situation tremendously," he said.

Chosen from more than 100 applicants, the five teams have taken part in the reality entertainment--style contest since February and represented a range of financial situations.

Each team received financial coaching over the contest -- a service that Redwood Credit Union provides for free to all members. Participants were asked to share their experience online, and judges evaluated their performance based on level of involvement, progress toward goals, improvement in credit score and public voting.

The packed conference room at Redwood Credit Union’s administrative offices in Santa Rosa hosted the "gala." It was a high-energy scene as organizers announced the teams amid continuing claps and cheers.

Redwood Credit Union Chief Operating Officer Anne Benjamin said the event represented efforts to increase public financial literacy.

"This is not the end for any of these people -- it's the beginning," she said.

Teams took to the stage to share their experience. Their coaches -- each a manager of a branch -- interviewed them, asking what had changed over the past few months.

"Even going to the grocery store now is really tedious!" said Angela Campbell of "Team Campbell," laughing. "Stephen (Hazard, coach of the team) is always there on my shoulder, saying 'is that really necessary?'"

"It's easy," said Sharon Van Patten, from "Team Van Patten." "You pay your bills; you put some into the emergency fund."

Priscilla and David Jaworski, who moved from Los Angeles so their infant son could grow up in Sonoma County, said they were thrilled after learning they had won. During the contest, the couple purchased a house and increased their savings.

"I didn't plan on winning," Mr. Jaworski said. "I feel like a winner just participating in this contest."

Their coach, Tim Sikes, manager of the Fourth Street branch in Santa Rosa, expressed joy at the Jaworskis' success.

"They're an amazing family," he said. "They put a lot of effort in."

Mr. Jaworski said that he had spent the past few months passing his newfound financial knowledge to his friends. Holding the $10,000 check, he said that his family wasn't about to run out and make a big purchase.

"This will be in savings for a while -- a money-market account," he said.

There are no certain plans for a "season two" of the contest, but the credit union will continue to find ways to increase the financial literacy of the public, according to Ms. Benjamin.

"People shouldn't be afraid to ask for help," Mr. Jaworski said. "It's free."