Our Towns

United Way Day of Caring Brings Out 1,000 Volunteers

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Becky Wessel wasn’t going to let a torn meniscus prevent her from participating in this year’s United Way Day of Caring.

On crutches because of the injury she incurred while training for a race, the commercial operations officer for Home Savings Bank in Youngstown went from house to house with her coworkers and a crew from the American Red Cross to install smoke detectors in the Taft Promise Neighborhood on the South Side.

“I didn’t want to not support my team. I wanted to be a part of this,” she said.

Wessel was part of 15-person crew from Home Savings that participated in the 21st annual Day of Caring sponsored by the United Way of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley.

Unable to do the installation work, Wessel spoke with homeowners to explain the importance of fire safety and how the smoke detectors work. She also left behind documents to help them prepare a fire escape plan.

“I have been volunteering for the United Way Day of Caring for several years. I’m very passionate about it,” she said. “When I have the opportunity to help people, I want to do it.”

Becky Wessel, despite being on crutches, was part of the Home Savings Bank Day of Caring team.

The Home Savings group was part of the record 1,000 participants in this year’s Day of Caring. Last year, 850 volunteers participated in the event, which also serves as the kickoff for the chapter’s annual fundraising campaign.

The 2018 campaign goal is $2.9 million, of which $842,294 already has been raised through the Pacesetter campaign, said Bob Hannon, president of United Way of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley.

Hannon acknowledged that he was surprised when Roxann Sebest, marketing and communications director, told him how many volunteers had registered.

“I asked Roxann if she promised them a Florida Georgia Line encore,” he joked. The total could have reached 1,100 but a school district that had planned to participate canceled classes earlier in the week because of the heat and needed to make up the time Friday.

This year, 90 companies, organizations and nonprofit agencies supplied volunteers for the effort. About 250 volunteered at United Way’s partner agencies, while the remaining 750 were mobilized for the effort in the Taft neighborhood in collaboration with Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp.

“What really helps is that most of the companies allow their employees to come here to work today and still get paid. They don’t have to take the day off, they don’t have to use a personal day,” Hannon said.

“I have a saying I shared with Bob [Hannon] today: People don’t choose to be needy, but we can choose to help. And that’s what we’re doing today,” said Bill Shivers, president of Huntington’s Mahoning Valley and Canton regions and chairman of the 2018 United Way campaign.

“No matter what the circumstances, some people can’t get done what they need to get done. We’re out here to make a difference,” he continued.

Volunteers cited a variety of reasons for taking part in the Day of Caring.

“We love to get involved and give back to our community, and there’s nothing better than coming together with all of our different business partners in the community and really help out,” said Ryan Pastore, vice president of client and community relations for PNC Bank in Youngstown.

PNC had 20 employees from the downtown office and local branches participating, Pastore said. He was headed to the Youngstown branch of the YWCA of the Mahoning Valley to stain a deck and help at its preschool. “This fits into our mission of early education and school readiness for kids.”

Stephen Hanzely, a retired Youngstown State University physics and astronomy professor, said he and his wife owe “a certain gratitude” to society.

“I came to the United States as a refuge,” he said. “What I’ve accomplished in my life I owe to American society for giving me the opportunity to do what I was able to do.”

Representatives from Burgan Real Estate, Boardman, have participated for the past three years, said Sue Filipovich, broker and co-owner.

“We just keep adding agents and volunteers to be able to do this,” she said. “We love being part of the community and seeing the revitalization of Youngstown and helping be a part of it.”

In addition, being in the real estate business, she recognizes the role property and home values play in the local economy, “so anything that we can do to improve that and just keep it growing is really important, not only for our company but our local citizens in the community,” she said.

Burgan employees were among those deployed to the Taft target area, roughly bordered by Marmion Avenue, South Avenue, East Avondale Avenue and Cottage Grove Avenue. The volunteers cleaned vacant properties and blighted houses, installed smoke alarms and cleared sidewalks.

This is the sixth year YNDC has partnered with the United Way for a neighborhood Day of Caring project, said Ian Beniston, YNDC’s executive director. The first year, 100 volunteers were deployed to clean up a couple blocks on the North Side.

“It’s really exploded,” Beniston said. “It continues to get more awesome each year.”

The growth in the number of volunteers lets YNDC accomplish in a short period of time what might otherwise take weeks, months or even years to do with its own resources, he said.

“The city alone is not able to do it. It doesn’t have the resources or the personnel,” added 6th Ward Councilwoman Anita Davis. The volunteers “are able to focus in certain areas that really need the help where the people are working to keep it up. They just need a helping hand.”

It has also has allowed YNDC to add new components to the effort, Beniston said. This year, in response to requests from neighborhood residents visited in advance of the Day of Caring, LED lighting is being installed on occupied dwellings.

Danielle Lanterman, human resources generalist with Dearing Compressor & Pump, was among the 40 company employees who were cleaning properties on East Florida and East Philadelphia avenues. “To clean up all of the areas that are destroyed to make our city beautiful is really important to me,” she said.

Also among those working on East Florida was Jim Freeze, executive director of Youngstown Area Goodwill Industries. Freeze led eight employees of his organization in the South Side initiative.

“We’re a recipient of United Way funds and we want to give back,” he said.

Youngstown Area Goodwill Industries Executive Director Jim Freeze, right, and YNDC construction team member Josh Potkay cleared overgrown sidewalks.

After the cleanup, residents of the neighborhood can help to maintain it, Davis said.

“I take a lot of pride in where I live at,” said Darien Ballinger, 116 E. Florida Ave.

In addition to maintaining his own property, he cuts the grass at the vacant house next to his and the two empty lots adjacent to it. Other neighbors on the street similarly maintain adjacent properties.

“We try our best to keep this neighborhood as nice as possible,” he said.

Mayor Jamael Tito Brown said he is amazed to see how many people care about the community.

“You thrive when your neighborhoods are thriving,” he said. “When you start with one block, one neighborhood, one community at a time, that’s how you move communities forward.”

Pictured at top: More than 1,000 volunteers assembled in downtown Youngstown Friday morning for the 2018 United Way Day of Caring. 

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.