My whole world was turned upside down when I was only 13. While on business in New Orleans, my father suffered a heart attack and died. I never saw him again.

The emotional upheaval was difficult enough to deal with, but the financial consequences were equally threatening. My father was the sole breadwinner for a family of six. Without his income, we were in danger of losing our home. And his dream of sending his children to college might never have been realized.

Disaster avoided
Thankfully, the financial disaster was avoided. My Irish-born grandmother knew a thing or two about money, and she had taught my mom well. The first thing my mom did was invest the life insurance money in certificates of deposit (CD). During that period, yields on CDs were in the double digits. We used the interest income to pay the bills, and my mom vowed to never spend a dime of the principal. She never did.

That interest income, combined with our Social Security benefits, allowed us to stay in our house. Even though our standard of living wasn't what it'd been before, it was close enough. I never felt deprived of anything during those years.

The luck of the Irish
I was the youngest in the family, so when it came time for me to go to college, I wasn't quite sure how we'd be able to pay for it. My mom told me we'd take it one year at a time. Toward the end of my four years, just as the financing was starting to get tenuous, my grandmother stepped up to help.

My Nana (as we called her), who came to America in steerage class, was a self-taught investor who built up a considerable portfolio over several decades. Like Warren Buffett, her time horizon was almost forever. She believed strongly in holding the bluest of blue chips -- stocks like General Electric (NYSE:GE), Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO), and Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ).

In her own focused portfolio, she had large positions in Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG), Northeast Utilities (NYSE:NU), and the old AT&T (NYSE:T) (I've continued to hold some of her AT&T shares through the company's various mutations). A stock sale in her portfolio was about as common as a sighting of Halley's Comet.

I reckon she had to make a sale or two to help fund the last years of my education. Both my mom and grandmother's financial acumen allowed my family to survive a painful personal catastrophe. I hate to think what might have happened had they not known how to handle money.

Controlling your destiny
Nowadays, I spend my time, alongside my Foolish colleagues, helping our readers and community members take control of their financial destiny. The costs of financial illiteracy can be devastating, and it's very rewarding to provide education in this area. Just a little knowledge may well be the difference between survival and ruin for some folks.

This is important work, and we're delighted to offer all of our readers a chance to help us in this mission. Our annual Foolanthropy effort has been refocused this year to address the subject of financial literacy in America and around the globe. By donating to one of our five charities, you'll be able to play your own part in helping individuals and families make a better life for themselves.

One of the Foolanthropy charities is Share Our Strength, which is a national organization designed to make sure no child in America grows up hungry. Its Operation Frontline program, in particular, is very meaningful to me. The program engages financial, culinary, and nutrition professionals in teaching low-income families how to use their limited financial resources wisely. Families at risk of hunger learn to set goals, plan ahead, and manage their money. This knowledge can mean the difference between feeding families just for one night, and making sure they never again have to worry about where their next meal will come from.

I am grateful to have had a grandmother and mother who knew enough about money to keep things afloat. Not every kid is as fortunate. The long-term effects of each dollar you donate are incalculable.

To learn more about Share Our Strength and this year's other four charities, click here.

John Reeves owns shares in Northeast Utilities and AT&T. He can still remember his Nana teaching him how to read the stock pages over a cup of tea. Johnson & Johnson is a Motley Fool Income Investor recommendation. Coca-Cola is an Inside Value selection. The Fool's disclosure policy is outlined here.