By Barbara Gavan
Originally published in The Florida Times-Union
Part of the United Way credo is to “change the lives of those who walk by us every day.”
This is not anonymous or generic. It means helping children in Northeast Florida to graduate from high school. It means helping neighbors achieve financial stability. It means cleaning up the region after a hurricane. United Way is part of the everyday lives of the residents of Northeast Florida.
“Our strategic plan, our vision is to build a community of opportunity, where everyone has hope and can reach his or her full potential,” said Michelle Braun, president and CEO of United Way of Northeast Florida. “United Way is the connector that brings together people, resources and ideas. It’s people helping people. And 10,000 people helped other people through United Way last year.”
Those 10,000 people helped students in the Achievers for Life program reach a promotion rate of 98 percent. They saw to it that 3,000 children attended high-quality early-learning centers. They helped file 21,000 2015 tax returns for free. They delivered 9,087 hours of financial education, answered 102,382 calls through the 2-1-1 system, and provided 4,032 children with much-needed medical services.
And those are just a few of United Way volunteers’ accomplishments last year.
Through the ReadingPals program, passionate, committed volunteers connect with preschoolers who need a little extra help getting ready for kindergarten. Each week, a volunteer spends 30 minutes with two preschoolers, reading a book, completing activities and developing skills that the children will need for success in school. Each child also receives at least four books to help build a home library.
Later in a child’s educational life, he or she faces the possibility of not finishing school. In Northeast Florida, one in three students will not graduate on time or at all.
Achievers in Life identifies at-risk students to provide them with family support, mentors and help in school. Just one caring adult
and one hour a week can change the direction of the life of a child who is struggling emotionally and academically. A student with a mentor is more likely to stay in school and perform well, and less likely to get involved in drugs and alcohol.
And, as adults, the challenges only get more difficult. Nearly half, 48 percent, of Duval County families are vulnerable to financial hardships if emergencies occur. RealSense is a nationally recognized United Way initiative designed to save families money and teach them fiscally responsible habits.
Since 2003, RealSense has returned $200 million in tax refunds and had a total economic impact of $95 million through financial education workshops, financial counseling and coaching, and free tax filing and guidance.
Surveys completed six months after financial education classes were held indicated that 33 percent of participants decreased their debt, an improvement of 16 percent, and 65 percent had established a written budget, an improvement of 33 percent.
At present, United Way is taking on the enormous task of coordinating relief efforts for Hurricane Matthew in Florida.
“We are working closely with county officials, emergency relief providers and our partners to understand the magnitude of needs across our community,” Braun said. “We are working together to ensure that support is available.”
United Way recently launched Florida’s First Coast Relief Fund to provide assistance to nonprofit organizations helping those affected by the hurricane in Northeast Florida. The Jesse Ball DuPont Fund has already committed $250,000 to the effort and will match all donations dollar-for-dollar up to another $250,000, with 100 percent of all gifts going to the relief effort.
“We need volunteers to help and we need donations so we’ll then get the matching funds, because there are a lot of people in need of help,” Braun said.
This is only one of many ways to help the community through United Way. In order to engage people in ways that matter to them, United Way has created Make Your Moment to connect your passion with a purpose. It starts with a quick online personality quiz, which then connects to unique ways to give back, from volunteerism and advocacy to learning opportunities and more.
“We invite people to be a part of the change going on in our community,” Braun said. “Come and help give others the opportunity to succeed – work hard and have fun doing it!”