United Way making a comeback

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By Shaina Stockton, Staff

Backed by the support from its recent merger with United Way Virginia Highlands, the Twin County Regional Cabinet of the non-profit organization is making a steady comeback.
The major changes that have recently taken place with United Way led to a unique campaign in the area this year. In March, Twin County United Way announced a merger with United Way Virginia Highlands. The new partnership spans the five counties of Carroll, Grayson, Russell, Smyth and Washington; and the City of Galax.

The campaign kicked off quietly in August, with no event to mark the launch. As explained by resource development manager Chris Brown in August, the group was too busy organizing its cabinet to plan an event.
The completed cabinet is headed by Twin County Regional Hospital CEO Jon Applebaum, and is made up of a dozen members.
Another big change is this year’s focus of the United Way campaign. Instead of digging out the fund-raising thermometer — a trademark of campaigns in previous years — the agency focused mainly on the changes it could make in the Twin Counties by using United Way’s new model, which concentrates on three main categories of community impact: education, income and health.
“This is a building year for us,” said Applebaum. “We are in the middle of our campaign, because we started late this year, and the next couple of months are critical.”
Although a monetary goal was not announced in August, the completed cabinet later agreed on $150,000. The agency already has reached the halfway point.
The cabinet plans to continue fund-raising through January or February of next year, and then will work on the disbursement phase of their campaign.
“We will show [participants] how to apply, then after our review process, the awards will be made in May and June and could start paying as early as July,” explained Travis Staton, CEO of United Way Virginia Highlands.
Although funding is important to the programs that are supported by the organization, United Way will continue to set its main focus on what is being done in the community.
“Our biggest challenge at this point is explaining to people about the merger that is taking place, and we need to show what progress we are making,” Applebaum said.
The merger has drawn some concern from the community, mainly about where the donated funds in this area will be going. When asked this question, the cabinet assures that the money that is raised locally will stay local.
As for what is being done with the funds, United Way is hoping to show rather than tell, through their efforts with the campaign this year. “People need to see these results and be aware of what we are trying to accomplish,” said Staton.

Making a Difference
Staton explained that the organization wants to focus more on preventing problems than fixing them.
“Historically, we would go to a donor, and thank them for their donation, and say something like, ‘It was a bad year,’ and next year we would come right back and say ‘It was a worse year,’ and we needed to figure out why that was.”
Although the organization will still give short-term relief to those who need it, the majority of its efforts will be focused on prevention. Eventually, the cabinet would like to see an 80/20 model in favor of preventing problems in the three main areas of focus.
Giving an example of the “Band-Aid” approach, Staton spoke theoretically of someone coming to United Way for help paying an electric bill. “While we want to help them short-term, we also need to address why the person is having a problem. Are they having trouble finding a job? Do they have problems handling their finances? Unless the cause is addressed, that person will just come right back with the same problem next month,” he explained.
As a part of this initiative, requests for help from repeat visitors to United Way will receive a special focus to address their issues for a more permanent fix. “Now we do have to take some special cases into perspective,” Staton noted, such as elderly clients who are on a fixed retirement income.
Staton then gave several examples of the types of programs United Way is looking to fund.
To assist at-risk youth in schools, United Way will be looking for volunteers to act as “big brothers” and “big sisters” to troubled youth. Donations will help fund background checks for this project, the group explained.
Another education focus for United Way is Smart Beginnings, which assists parents and childcare facilities in preparing young children to be at a certain level by the time they begin school.
As part of the effort, these facilities will be rated on a five-star scale, then assisted throughout a year-long period, where they will be trained in preparing kids for school and given the resources they need, such as books. Upon completion of the program, the facility gets a new assessment and is then promoted to families looking for childcare services.
As for health, prevention efforts will include education about healthy living, which can be applied to any age. For example, one of the projects that United Way is looking to fund is the OrganWise Guys, a program featuring a cast of characters modeled after parts of the human body. “The child gets a doll — and the dolls can be customized to look like the students — and the doll contains all of the organ characters, which come out of the doll,” Staton said.
All of the organs have names — such as Windy the lungs, Sir Rebrum the brain and the Kidney Brothers — and the characters tell stories that teach students what makes each organ feel healthy.
This program is already being used in some kindergarten classes in the region, and has seen some interesting results.
“A grandmother called one of the schools and told the staff that her grandson told her that he knew why his grandfather had passed away: because Windy the lungs didn’t like his cigarette smoke,” Staton said. “These kids are listening to this program, and they are asking for more fruits and vegetables in the cafeteria, because they want to be healthy. Parents are buying healthier groceries because they know that they aren’t going to go to waste.”
Income assistance will consist of help in job searches, tutorials in how to budget and save and advice about banking accounts.
Through these programs, the group hopes to provide more permanent solutions, resulting in better outcomes as the years go on. “Not everything we invest in will work, but we have to try,” said Staton.

It Takes a Village
The group is also looking to bring together community partners in order to help with some of their projects.
“We need people to be aware and volunteer. We will still need people to paint walls and clean, but we will also need tutors and mentors for the people we are trying to help,” said Brown.
The regional office, which is located on Grayson Street in Galax, will soon see a remodel that will allow the group to utilize more of the building’s space. “We have contracted with [Galax architect] Doug Williams and we are pulling together a plan over the next two or three months,” said Brown. “After that, we will go out to build and start swinging hammers.”
The upper floors of the building, which are vacant at this time, will be converted into rooms for other non-profits that are interested in joining the United Way effort. “We want to help people and not bounce them around from place to place. We want this place to be a one-stop shop where they can get help,” Brown said.
Non-profits that are interested in leasing space are encouraged to contact United Way now to reserve their spot before building begins, so they can negotiate the kind of space they are looking for, he added.
In addition, the group will be applying for grants to help with the expansion, which will also include handicapped access, up-to-date technology and possibly an elevator.
Brown also noted that the group is looking to cover all of the organization’s operating costs by leasing out the space, meaning that 100 percent of campaign donations would benefit the community.
Another bonus from partnering with other agencies is that they will be able to help one another achieve similar goals. “We hear about other organizations trying to do things similar to what we are doing. By getting together, we have an even better chance of making them happen,” said Staton.
After working as chair of the cabinet, Applebaum is excited to see the ideas that will be generated by working with other groups. “There is some real synergy that could happen if we all come together,” he said.

Upcoming United Way Events
United Way Virginia Highlands has announced two local events that will take place in November.
On Nov. 26, Food City in Galax will host a Celebrity Bagging event, where local  “celebrities” will assist United Way members in bagging groceries from 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. The full celebrity list is not yet available, but it has been confirmed that Galax School Superintendent Bill Sturgill, Noel Wood of BB&T and Applebaum will participate. At the bagging stations, a donation jar will be available, where customers can “tip” the celebrity baggers.
The other event is a “Fill the Truck” event for local kids, which will span several weeks, beginning on “Black Friday,” Nov. 29.
The truck will be parked in front of Walmart on the weekends through Dec. 15, where customers can drop off gifts for children from needy homes. Donors are encouraged to donate toys, coats, hats or scarves for the cause.

For more information about United Way, visit www.UWVH.org.