Sue Ehinger often finds herself asking, “What would we do without the United Way?”
“Years ago, I had a friend who was diagnosed with cancer and if that wasn’t devastating enough, on top of that came the loss of a job and the loss of a marriage. She said to me: ‘Where do I go? Who can I turn to? I don’t have health insurance – how am I going to get through this?’”
Ehinger’s answer: United Way of Allen County.
“It was the United Way’s 211 service that helped her walk through that journey and get her life back.”
By calling 211, United Way of Allen County connects people to local resources for assistance with numerous issues, including health care, housing and legal aid.
For the last four years, Ehinger has served on the Board of Directors for United Way of Allen County. But her involvement with the social service agency reaches back long before that.
“My father always said, ‘If you are working and you have money left over, you need to be helping other people who may not be as fortunate as you.’ And you will do that by helping the United Way. I donated to them for many years before becoming a board member. The United Way solves community problems. That’s what they’re here for. They’re not biased; they don’t have a hidden agenda; people trust them and they’re going out in the community and learning what the problems are and how we can bring people together to resolve these issues.”
Over the last two years, members of United Way of Allen County took an in-depth look at how the agency’s resources are used and decided to refocus the community investment process.
“It was a serious consideration of the board to really think through what is the best way to be investing the funds that were generously given to the United Way to improve the community. Prior to that time, the United Way had been pretty open to a variety of initiatives and, now, the board could see that it was time to really focus on some key initiatives that we could truly measure and demonstrate to the community the changes that have occurred for the better.”
Ehinger says local families who can be categorized in the United Way’s “ALICE” initiative will be highly impacted by the new investment process.
ALICE stands for: Asset-limited, income-constrained, employed.
“ALICE individuals are working extremely hard, but they still are struggling to survive and get their basic needs met. So, the focus now is on removing the barriers and being able to measure if we have the right activities occurring that can help reduce those barriers or take them away,” says Ehinger.
“It’s those families who are living paycheck to paycheck and there’s not a lot of money left in their budget,” says Kristi Crisp, Vice President of Engagement Strategies for United Way of Allen County. “They’re not putting money into savings and if something critical or urgent happened to them, like a medical crisis, they could easily dip down into the poverty level because they just don’t have the economic stability to keep them from that.”
Both Ehinger and Crisp say there are a number of programs established under the United Way to help these families.
“Kindergarten Countdown is a huge one the United Way has supported and that truly makes a difference,” says Ehinger.
Kindergarten Countdown is offered to incoming kindergartners with little or no prior preschool experience who are identified by school officials as being at high risk of falling behind their classmates.
“We have to start now to help our kids for the future,” says Ehinger. “If you don’t get started on that right foot before you even get into school, then you struggle all the way through school. I was really taken aback by the number of children who don’t know how to open a book and read from one page to another. It’s something most of us take for granted, but those children simply weren’t raised in an environment that promotes reading.”
Another program making a difference for ALICE families is VITA: Volunteer Income Tax Assistance.
“Families making $54,000 or less per year can have their taxes done for free by certified IRS volunteers,” says Crisp. “Many of those people wouldn’t be able to pay for assistance with their taxes and once they get their returns, they’re more than likely to put that money back into our community.”
At the root of the local United Way’s success since it was founded almost 100 years ago, are the volunteers.
Monetary support is always needed and deeply appreciated, says Ehinger and Crisp, who are also hopeful more and more people will hear the calling to donate their time and talent.
“There are so many volunteer opportunities ranging from helping with a coat drive to assisting with the Day of Caring, where people go out and help various organizations with anything they need, such as painting or cleaning,” says Ehinger. “If we want to live in a healthy community, then we have to be a part of the solution and being involved with the United Way is a great way to do that.”
Address: 334 E. Berry St. Fort Wayne, Indiana 46802
Phone: (260) 422-4776
Products & Services: United Way of Allen County exists to unite our communities’ time, talent and treasure to cultivate and advance community solutions that address the most critical issues around basic needs, education, financial stability and healthy lives.