Live United: Dig deeper into community needs whenever possible

Published 8:45 pm Friday, September 9, 2022

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Live United by Erin Haag

Whatboutism is a dangerous, contagious thing. It often comes up when there’s a project or concept being worked on. “We’re going to work to increase sales and here are the strategies to do that.” “But what about professional development? We need to do that first!”

Erin Haag

I’ve heard a lot of whatboutism. Why are you working on ABC when we need XYZ? While it’s true that United Way has particular focuses, we do pay attention to a broad scope of community needs. The trend the last few years has been on basic needs such as food insecurity and winter gear. Focuses are selected for a variety of reasons — opportunity, highlighted needs, a clear gap in services. It doesn’t negate the need for other focuses, it just means that we have examined the possibilities, and determined where we can make the greatest impact. 

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Focusing on basic needs allows us to take a holistic approach to other community needs. It’s a point of entry for us to say, “OK, we’ve got this basic need covered, what else can we help you with?” As ice breakers go, food and warm clothing are great at this. The holistic approach is very clear to see after a distribution of food or winter gear. Once a community member has received access to warm clothing or food, and realized the welcoming, listening ears that Heidi and Nikolle provide, they often realize that United Way is a valuable resource. Our phones will ring with people calling to provide feedback. The conversation might be a senior expressing gratitude for the Welcome Pantry. Through the conversation, we’ll learn that this senior should be signed up for the NAPS box, or encourage them to become a Senior Center member, which includes membership to the Albert Lea Family Y. So now we’ve addressed food, socialization, exercise and mental health support by not being in isolation. 

One memorable whataboutism I received was someone who called and asked what we were working on. I talked about our programs, our Community Impact Grants and our partner agencies. The individual was silent for a moment and then finally said, “Well, I’m not happy with this. I’m so upset with you for using donations this way!” Not entirely sure how to respond, I asked what they would like to see donations used for. The response was, “You’re spending all the money here and what about the Ukraine?” I explained that our focus is on Freeborn County, and the war was devastating and heartbreaking and there was absolutely all kinds of needs. My explanation didn’t mollify the caller, and they kept insisting we shouldn’t be doing any type of funding and be sending it to the Ukraine. I wrapped up the conversation by providing information on how to donate to the United for Ukraine relief fund. The caller declined to donate, and stated they can’t afford to donate to charities, but we should be taking the  money and sending it to Ukraine instead of doing Community Impact Grants. Turns out, the individual lives somewhere in North Carolina with no connection to our area. Apparently Google popped up our United Way first? 

While it’s easy to shake our heads and laugh at this extreme example, it’s a common example. I know that others hear it every day. There’s current discussion happening about increasing security at our schools. There was a lot of commentary of, “forget about that, what about security in the schools?” 

Life isn’t black and white like this. We can work on increasing security for our schools and address security among students in our schools. We can work on Community Impact Grants, food insecurity and mental health supports. 

While Ukrainian support from overseas isn’t within the scope of the work for United Way of Freeborn County, it’s now our time to shine. A local community member has been sponsoring Ukrainian families to move and settle in Freeborn County. She contacted our office yesterday for help on resources. We learned that there’s a need for household items, so we’re putting out the call through our Community Needs Program. There are two families arriving next week, and work is underway to prepare their new apartments with beds, furniture, kitchen items and more. I’m going to gently say that while many may have questions about the families, I’m going to be protecting their privacy as much as I can. I do know their names, ages and more, but please understand that we’ll be focusing on bigger, general needs, rather than specific ones. 

Interested in helping out? We’ll be updating our website at with items that are needed. The response has already been fast and furious and we’re working to keep up. With our Community Needs program, all items must be in good working condition, clean and ready to go. We ask that those wanting to donate an item first call us to check if the item is still needed, and then we discuss the best way to deliver it. Smaller items can often be brought to our office, but larger items are coordinated for delivery/pick up by the community members. All items brought to the UWFC must be approved, as we do not have the room to store, or the manpower to coordinate delivery/pickup. We’re doing what we can, with the capacity we have. Individuals willing to volunteer to pick up items and help deliver would also be welcome. 

I know not everyone has a computer, so I’ll highlight some of the bigger needs. We’re looking for kitchen tables/chairs, microwaves and/or toaster ovens, vacuum cleaners, living room furniture such as couches, end tables, etc. Smaller items include cleaning supplies, plastic adult hangers, bedding for twin through queen sizes. At this time, we do not have need of clothing, but diapers in size 4 would be welcome, as well as wipes. Plastic adult hangers, vacuum cleaners, cleaning supplies, hygiene supplies and bedding of all sizes. Microwaves and/or toaster ovens. On the list is a set of end tables and lamps for the end tables. Have items this weekend? Volunteers are working to prepare for their arrival. Call our office at 507-373-8670 and press 2 to leave a detailed message. We will be checking messages periodically and will call if we’re able to. We may not be able to return all calls before Monday, but we’ll at least be aware of the item you have. You may also email Pictures and measurements of larger items are helpful, so we can ensure it will fit through doorways and in the apartment. 

This is a great way to kick off our Give Where You Live season! 

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