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Standing Together with its Community

United Way collaborates to bring change

By Rachel Kelly

United Way has a mission to improve lives. They do this by seeking out the un-touched or un-talked about problems, using hands-on experience and research-backed initiatives to solve them. While United Way is a global nonprofit that functions all over the world, this doesn’t stop them from being involved personally within their separate communities. United Way believes that “to live better we must live United.” Which means that they don’t shy from working with their neighbors to address common issues, to ensure the health, education and financial stability for everyone.

United Way’s worldwide mission is to “improve lives by mobilizing the caring power of communities around the world to advance the common good.” They do this by providing access to basic needs, such as food, shelter and financial stability. United Way also seeks to tackle transportation needs that inhibit access to those basic needs. Those resources additionally provide for health care and address domestic violence. The reach and scope of United Way as an international nonprofit is huge, but the focus is small. Funds and resources donated to a local United Way are distributed locally—to local organizations and local people. It’s no wonder then that the United Way in Northern Idaho and Pierce County have individual local relationships, initiatives and partnerships.

“Most people know United Way as a global organization. What most people don’t realize is that we are a network of smaller nonprofits,” says Mark Tucker, the executive director of United Way of North Idaho. This is especially important, because this means that United Way is operating according to local needs heard from local people and organizations. There are larger consistent methods that United Way in the Pacific Northwest uses as a whole to assess smaller community needs, such as ALICE. ALICE refers to the people within any community that are Asset Limited, Income Constrained, and Employed. ALICE works as a snapshot that allows each individual United Way to assess its community needs and address systemic issues that contribute to any shortages.

“The great thing about a local structure with local volunteers is that we are able to identify and focus on our community’s greatest needs,” says Mark. The staff at this locality is relatively small, but their capacity for impact is increased through their partnerships. Through the ALICE system as reference, United Way in North Idaho has sought an understanding of their unique community needs. This is the first step in any United Way venture and is especially true in the counties of North Idaho. According to ALICE, 41 percent of these communities are struggling to make ends meet. Through their local partnerships, they seek real solutions. Using both ALICE and local connections, North Idaho has been able to identify their community's greatest unmet need and proactively tends to that need through working across sectors. Because their partnerships with local agencies and providers have brought about a greater understanding of how to approach the issue, United Way in North Idaho is in a unique position. Not only are they able to provide research, but they are also able to step in with funding.

Right now, North Idaho has identified childcare as a large unmet community need. Since childcare is the most expensive item in the budget for a family, it often is the barrier to getting parents back to work or working within the job that they prefer. “As we dug deeper into the issue, we realized that childcare workers are suffering themselves. Since teacher pay is so low, turnover is high, and lowering pay is not an option. With real estate having gone up dramatically, relocating for expansion is out of the question,” says Mark. What’s more, providing childcare benefits the community as a whole. Quality childcare prepares children for school readiness, which means that kindergartners are less likely to fall behind. Children who are not able to keep up in school, that do not receive the support they need, can often become delinquent. This, in turn, means that schools lose tax revenue. Loss of revenue, in turn, limits resources.

Even more urgently, providing quality childcare supports businesses. When parents have consistent, affordable childcare, both parents are able to go back to work. Without this drain on their income, they are able to use more of their income to prepare for their future, invest in savings and pay off debt. Employers consistently see childcare as the top reason for tardiness or missed work. With the current shift in the economy and workforce, employers are beginning to change the way that they see their employees. In turn, this affects how they do business. With the current scarcity of employees, employers are looking to invest into childcare. Providing childcare in North Idaho helps with recruitment and retention, as well as fills a community need.

To move out of the current childcare crisis, United Way of North Idaho approaches the problem using two strategies: funding and direct service programming. Using the Community Care Fund, United Way funds nonprofits that are already doing phenomenal work in the community. Direct service programming is a straightforward approach to address the crisis, where United Way develops its own services to answer needs where no services may be available. Examples include the Ready! For Kindergarten, Bank on North Idaho Financial literacy training, and the Family Scholarship program. Of course, United Way also uses collaboration. The Child Care Committee developed through $100,000 in funds from United Way in North Idaho. This committee has developed relationships with childcare providers, municipalities, educators and business leaders. Everyone is working together, focused on ending the childcare crisis.

United Way in Pierce County just celebrated 100 hundred years of local service in their area. They are as historically a presence in the community as much as the theatres, train station and harbors. Celebrations have commenced throughout this last year, beginning with a food drive and birthday party in May. The ending celebrations finished on September 21 with a free virtual rally. The centennial celebration was part of an $8 million centennial campaign series. Amanda Westbrook of the CityLine talk show hosted the celebrations in style, bringing participants back through the rich history of United Way and culminating in a look at what’s in store for the future. Participants were treated to a first look at the Centennial video, as well as given an opportunity to learn trivia and win prizes. The spotlight has been on United Way in Pierce County as they continue to rejoice in their centennial year, but their everyday work in the community has not ceased.

United Way’s long varied history in Pierce County began in 1921 with the Federation of Social Agencies. Partners in this building included local churches, the Red Cross and Tacoma Community Housing. Fundraising for 28 local charities and social agencies continued throughout the years. In 1951, $318,000 was raised and distributed, with close to $2,500 awarded to the Girl Scouts. In 1956, United Way’s fundraisers reached $1 million for the first time. In 1976, $2 million was reached for the first time, with $238,000 donated to its longtime partner The Red Cross. 1984 saw $4 million raised. In 1994, they broke $7 million. In 2000, Joanne Bamford introduced early learning as a community focus. In 2003, ABCD was established, which provided dental services for low-income communities. For several years after this, United Way established itself as an advocate for early learning, with $5 million raised specifically for this. In 2013, 70 percent of United Way resources were allotted for prevention, such as early learning. They were able to fund prevention while still addressing present needs such as food, shelter and clothing. In 2016, two Centers for Strong Families were established. The centers continued to raise funds for services to families throughout the next few years, with large donations made by the Kaiser Permanente Foundation. In 2019, the Center for Strong Families eventually established Resilient Pierce County, which focuses on Franklin Pierce and East Tacoma communities.

Today, United Way in Pierce County has directed its focus on poverty, which they began in 2017. This was also the year that United Way held its first From Poverty to Possibilities Summit. Using the ALICE approach, a consistent research approach among all of the United Ways in the Pacific Northwest, UWPC has found out some information about present needs within the community. According to research, 23 percent of the families in Pierce County are ALICE families. This number has risen over the pandemic. That means every one in five families are struggling to make ends meet. United Way has done a lot in Pierce County over its 100-year-long residence, but recent research has shown that Pierce County is struggling with a unique shortage of employment combined with a decrease in housing. Everything United Way is doing in Pierce County is focused on addressing this problem. United Way in Pierce County has a goal of ending poverty for 15,000 families by 2028. They will continue to do this by partnering with local organizations and nonprofits that provide for community needs, in the hopes that, together, the community can break down barriers toward self-sufficiency.

To say that the partnerships are fast and widespread is an understatement. UWPC has coordinated efforts in school districts, health and human services, faith-based groups, government agencies and individuals with commitments to research forward action. UWPC is continuing in its trend to be an active part in meeting these families holistically, where they’re at. This has been true for the last 100 years, and will continue to be true for the next.

United Way stands true to its mission to “mobilize the caring power in communities around the world.” They focus on education, health and financial stability. The international impact of United Way is a vast interconnection of communities around the world. Their projects include access to health care in Korea, books for children in Australia, and financial stability in Denver, USA. Hundreds of thousands of people receive these services and financial aid. Many local organizations receive grants. This has only been possible through unity. Not only is the fulfillment seen in United Way’s unified network of interconnected smaller nonprofits, who mobilize among themselves, United Way also creates cohesion in the communities they serve by pursuing relationships, providing funding, seeking out research, and gathering together to hear directly from their community.

Approaches are vast and widespread, and they are direct and impactful. Whether they are large or small, personal or from afar, United Way is making a difference in individual lives, one unified community collaboration at a time.

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