Meeting the Challenge: United Way helps people ‘live their best possible lives’

The following blog post was originally published in The Edwardsville Intelligencer, reported by Scott Marion. 

EAST ALTON — In a year unlike any other, the United Way continued to answer the needs of the community.

Despite the challenges posed by the coronavirus, the United Way helped thousands of people in the St. Louis area in 2020 and is prepared to help even more people in 2021.

“The mission of the United Way is to help people live their best possible lives and I would have to say it has lived up to its mission since the start of this pandemic,” said Maura Wuellner, director of the Southwest Illinois Division for United Way of Greater St. Louis.

United Way of Greater St. Louis serves 16 counties throughout the greater St. Louis region in Missouri and Illinois. It has four regional offices, each with an auxiliary board of directors comprised of local residents.

The Southwest Illinois Division serves Madison, Macoupin, Jersey, Greene and Calhoun counties.

“Our community and the entire country are hurting due to the effects of the pandemic,” said Regina Greer, chief impact officer for United Way of Greater St. Louis. “Throughout 2020 and into 2021, we’ve experienced a great outpouring of help and support throughout our region. We continue to work each day to ensure our region is supported through this difficult time.”

Locally, United Way COVID-19 response efforts have helped more than 240,000 families in the region, including providing 1.3 million meals, 5,400 nights of emergency shelter, supporting nearly 12,000 seniors, and providing financial assistance for rent, mortgage and utility assistance to hundreds of families.

Since last April, United Way has invested an additional $1.2 million through emergency response grants into more than 50 nonprofits serving people throughout the St. Louis region, including 31 nonprofits that serve people in Illinois.

This support is providing funding for:

  • Safe childcare for first responders and essential employees
  • Shelter and housing assistance to keep families secure and together
  • Access to food, medicine, and supplies for children, families, and seniors
  • Mental health support and counseling

United Way also launched United to Help our Neighbors, an additional emergency response fund to assist individuals whose jobs were directly impacted in the wake of the pandemic.

“The pandemic has also highlighted the digital divide in our communities and lack of access to and knowledge of technology,” Greer said. “Earlier this year, we awarded more than $46,000 in grants to 10 local nonprofits that will provide more than 150 youth, seniors and individuals living with disabilities with internet access and digital devices for virtual learning and continued access to critical programs and services.”

The United Way also has the 211 hotline, which is a free confidential helpline where people can call to get connected to services and agencies.

“We had 54 percent more calls in 2020 than we had in 2019,” said Wuellner, who works out of a regional office in East Alton. “The majority of requests were for rental and utility assistance.”

Since mid-March, most United Way staff have been working remotely. As the manager of the region’s Volunteer Center, the United Way of Greater St. Louis has also had to find ways to connect people to safe volunteer opportunities, including new virtual opportunities that allow individuals and families to volunteer directly from home.

Many of the companies that run a workplace campaign had staff working from home this past year, so the United Way created a digital-first fall campaign so these companies could continue to communicate and inspire their employees to help through United Way. This included finding virtual platforms to host fundraisers, innovating virtual event programming and creating new messaging telling the story of how the United Way helps.

“We did not have a campaign goal in 2020,” Greer said. “Through support from individuals and companies, we collectively raised $82,958,000, which includes $69,111,000 through our fall campaign efforts, to help people live their best possible lives. “Our 2021 campaign strategy remains under discussion.”

Almost every United Way event that was held in 2020 was done virtually, but some events had to be canceled.

“One popular event that we do every spring in Edwardsville at N.O. Nelson is ‘Power of the Purse,’ which features male models showcasing various purses,” Wuellner said. “It’s a really good fundraiser for us and it was a disappointment to have to cancel it. I have no idea if we’re going to be able to do it this year.”

Other events continued, although under a different format.

“We recently did a Community Christmas in our area and that has traditionally had a lot of volunteers,” Wuellner said. “There was no way we could not do it this year, but we had to do it in a different way.

“The participating agencies met me at Target in Alton to do the shopping for their clients and we divided it over several days. We spent over $35,000 and people were so appreciative.”

Even before the pandemic, the United Way was changing and restructuring to better meet the needs of the community.

“We are always asking how we can better serve the community,” Greer said. “To do this, we’ve realigned some aspects of our work – both in how we partner with local companies and how we work with community partners.”

Another challenge for the United Way has been dealing with the proliferation of nonprofits in recent years. The United Way tries to assist as many organizations as possible, whether through direct funding or other methods.

As additional funding is available, United Way also provides grants to nonprofits to help support a gap or need in the community.

“Maintaining our region’s safety net of nonprofits is critical to ensuring that resources and help are available to our neighbors when they need it, during both everyday times and times of crisis,” Greer said. “This is why United Way is focused on a safety net approach to supporting the community.

“To build a stronger community, we believe our region must have high-performing nonprofit organizations. To support new and existing nonprofits, we provide free or reduced-cost capacity building workshops and trainings for nonprofits to gain new knowledge, skills and expertise in areas like finance, strategy, succession planning, board development, outcome reporting, and more.”

James Taylor
James Taylor