United Way deepens its local connections

Published 5:42 pm Saturday, August 24, 2013

Column: Live United, by Ann Austin

We just finished another amazing week of volunteerism! The Rocking the Block project continues to grow, gaining more volunteers and donations toward the effort to revitalize area neighborhoods.

Our United Way of Freeborn County partnered with Shinefest, Habitat for Humanity and the Albert Lea Housing and Redevelopment Authority to fix up four homes. This was the second year of the partnership. We built on some lessons that we learned last year and will continue to build on these efforts to improve the lives of our neighbors.

Ann Austin

Ann Austin

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This is what the philosophy of “community impact” is all about. United Ways are charged with meeting needs that aren’t currently being addressed by other programs, but we’ve recognized that in order to create any meaningful change in our society, we must partner with others who have a similar vision.

We have worked over the past four years to align our vision with groups we have not traditionally partnered with like Shinefest and deepen relationships with the medical center, school district, county programs and the Chamber of Commerce, as well as many others. We continue to expand our reach because we value the perspective offered by others and know that in order to move the community forward, we must do it together.

We are specifically focusing on the areas of education, income and health, as these are the building blocks for a good quality of life. The programs we fund in our community meet essential needs in these areas, but as requests continue to increase from local programs, we have to take a closer look at how effective the programs are at helping people out of the challenging situations they face.

At a training this past spring, we asked local program directors to look more closely at outcomes and how they can measure program success. We have started to assess programs quarterly to determine progress toward goals. We are also encouraging collaboration between programs that work with similar populations to help people get to a place where they no longer need to use local services.

This has required several years of building trust and understanding that no program can be successful on its own. And our success depends on effective communication. Sometimes people can get caught up in semantics — which words or phrases people use to communicate with — and develop a misguided perspective.

The solutions to our challenges are not black and white. There is a lot of gray and there is a lot of uncertainty. Rather than covering our heads or running away from these problems, we need to face them directly.

The other evening, I was having a hard time falling asleep because I was trying to solve the dilemma of poverty. In the morning I realized it was unrealistic for me to be tackling this problem on my own. I am one piece of the puzzle and United Way is one part of the solution. We need so many others to step up and help.

The poverty our society is facing is generational; there needs to be an element of education with all services provided and a change in how we perceive people who are struggling. We talk a lot these days about a “hand up.” Each person must be responsible for their part in the solution.

Realistically, it will take one step at a time, and we will reach one person at a time. It will require us to leave our agendas at the door and develop a common vision together.

Rather than perceiving that we are in this fight on our own, whatever the fight might be — to survive, to provide a better world for our children, to develop a better means of delivering services — we need each other.

Our United Way needs you — please feel free to call, ask us questions, tell us what you think. If you see me on the street or in the grocery store, talk to me about what matters to you. Talk to our volunteers and the people who are working with local programs. The information will most likely be overwhelming, but what I have found is that, at some point, it all starts to make sense and solutions are found.


Albert Lea resident Ann Austin is the executive director of the United Way of Freeborn County.