Live United: Winter gear drive has started at various locations in town

Published 8:45 pm Friday, October 15, 2021

Live United by Erin Haag

Wednesday morning, I was on Power 96, talking with Jay Paul about the weather. Remember that morning? Dark, cloudy…windy and pouring. I’m not sure it if was expected or not, because I neglected to check the weather. It never fails though — no matter what day I plan on hauling out the drop boxes, even if I have two to three dates chosen — that day is not a great day to be hauling around big cardboard boxes in and out of stores. I probably was real entertaining to watch last year as I chased a box across the parking lot of Wedgewood Cove.

Erin Haag

Many boxes are out. You’ll find the Winter Gear Drive boxes at Hy-Vee and Walmart, Whimzy, Plymouth Shoes, Arcadian Bank, Shoe Sensation, St. Theodore and Alpha Orthodontics. More locations will be coming soon, including the Albert Lea Family Y, Jason’s 10,000 Custom Designs (Ellendale/Geneva area) and Accentra Bank. We are actively looking for volunteers to help us monitor those boxes, so if that’s something up your alley, give us a call at 507-373-8670. Even if it’s just for a few weeks, that would be a help. We realize some are concerned about ice/snow — and rest assured we want no one taking risks. Each volunteer opportunity can be tailed to your needs/abilities.

We finally got our new phone and internet system. I was excited last Friday to complete that work, and then walked in on Monday to find no printer/copier/scanner working —on the day that I intended to print all the posters I had just finished. Thankfully it was a cord that became unplugged during the install, but it took two days and lots of phone calls to get them to come out and figure it out. I’m still working out the voicemail — it’s turning on during the “off hours” but not during the “on hours.” So, still wearing that tech support hat a little bit. Ruth has been sharing that hat with me, and I’m so grateful.

This week, we celebrated Ruth being with us for 90 days. Yay, Ruth! I remember when I first started, I had quite a bit of nonprofit experience under my belt. I spoke on the phone with the director of our state association, and she bluntly told me, “Welcome to United Way, the most challenging nonprofit there is, and you’re in charge.” Gulp, gulp.

Here’s the thing. United Way is an entirely different animal than most. Most nonprofits have a mission statement that fits a category. The parameters might be centered around services for low income, or might be providing health and well being opportunities. United Way does all of that — and then some. We often say that “we don’t help individuals, we support the non profits working with those individuals.” It’s actually a bit more complex than that.

Do we help a senior with yard cleanup? No, we don’t. However, we do engage in volunteer work and coordination. If no other agency is able to do so, we would put out the call to our volunteer base and see if that’s an opportunity someone would take on. So in that way, we could be helping an individual.

What about our Winter Gear Drive? That’s direct service — why are we doing it? It comes down to logistics. We want our area case managers and social workers to have an easy place to access the resources for their clients. Rather than them spending time recruiting drop boxes, cleaning coats, etc, we can handle the logistics of it. By taking on that one small piece of things, it has an impact on a case worker’s ability to serve their clients.

What I can be clear about is that we don’t provide funding directly to individuals — or even to landlords, utilities, etc.

It’s taken me quite a bit of time to articulate the parameters around that, and I don’t believe I’ve always done a good job — both with the public and with my own colleagues. At United Way, we often get resourceful, thinking outside the box about how we can help in a situation, even if it doesn’t exactly fit the bill for a program. So how do you communicate that when people call and they’re in crisis? They think, “but you helped this person, so why not me?”

I spent yesterday in the company of professionals speaking about their jobs across the state. We talked about a new partnership being developed and what the director of that partnership would need. Questions about expectations in the first few months of the partnership and the timeline of things were asked. As I spoke about my perspective, I realized my word of the day. Ambiguity. I told the group that the leader of that partnership would need to be comfortable in ambiguity. This is breaking new ground, thinking outside the box, and there’s no model to follow. There are no set guidelines. That’s not easy to do. It’s also something that I’m fairly used to, since I grew up in the world of new programming being developed. The bulk of my nonprofit experience was developing new partnerships and programming. Ambiguity is something we work with every single day at United Way, determining the best new path to take. For me, it’s exciting. It’s the road less, traveled, the unknown path.

Here’s to living in ambiguity, and forging new paths by LIVING UNITED.

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