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Live United: Build up systems that will empower others during life

Live United by Erin Haag


I read the paper in a mixture of hard copy and online. So usually, I don’t see my column, but last week I did. There, kitty-corner to mine was April’s column. I’ve often thought that she and I were complementary on what we had to say. We joked that we should plan our columns when we really want to hammer home a point. Thank goodness we’re not on a political campaign team right? I cheated a bit when writing this. I asked April what her topic was this week. I got the hint and turns out, it fits with what has been rattling around my head today.

A core tenant of United Way is empowerment. Empowering families to change their lives. Empowering those in need to break the cycle of poverty. When you need help, it’s difficult to feel empowered. Maybe you’re embarrassed. Maybe you feel like you don’t have the right to ask for something different.

Erin Haag

This morning, I had the privilege to speak to the Golden Key Kiwanis Club. We spent our time discussing the winter gear drive. Questions were asked about how it’s set up, and I explained about our two-pronged approach: the “storefront” and the “referral.” The storefront is designed so people can come and shop, thus giving the families choice, empowering them and normalizing the process a bit. The referral approach ensures that no one faces barriers to coming to the store, and area social workers are able to send home a coat with a child as soon as possible.

Last year, a woman who was also a homeless veteran came into the “storefront.” A well meaning volunteer fussed over her, showing her a bright purple coat, and talked about how  nice the coat was and what a beautiful color it was on her. The woman was quiet, but polite. She tried the coat on, but was very stoic, showing little reaction. As I walked by, the volunteer got pulled away by someone else. She quietly asked if she could possibly try on the coat I had in my hand. Of course she could — that’s why we set up the store that way.

This woman who fought for our county, this woman who faced challenges most of us can’t even imagine, she tried on the plain black coat and her entire being lit up. A huge smile was on her face, and she strutted a little, smoothing her hands down her sides, saying, “This is nice!” She talked about how she felt it was practical, it was a coat that would be just fine working around the house, but also plain enough and dressy enough to go on job interviews.

That bright purple coat was nice, too. But it wasn’t her. She was used to combat boots and fatigues. She felt like she should take what was offered, and only the gift of timing gave her the courage to ask for something different. Later, the volunteer mentioned she thought that the woman was rude, wasn’t appreciative enough. The volunteer didn’t know the rest of the story though. In hindsight, having been there myself, I can see now where the woman’s quietness and stoic attitude was perceived as rudeness. Once I shared the rest of the story, the volunteer’s perception changed. I experience and hear stories like this all the time. This one was about coats, but it applies to most programming in our area.

Let’s share our time, talents and financial support without expectations of the people receiving services. It’s difficult enough to ask for help. Let’s build systems that lift them up, empower them to break the cycle and give them the dignity of choices. After all, don’t we want those things for ourselves?

That bright purple coat? I just realized, it’s an April style coat. Bright, colorful and full of energy. 

Now — go read April’s column. It’s a good one, as usual. I’ll let you draw the correlations.

Erin Haag is the executive director of the United Way of Freeborn County.