United Way Chapters Fill Community Needs

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Shannon Stamp, a United Way volunteer at the Youngstown Community School, is about to start her fourth year of helping with the Success After 6 Initiative.

Volunteers engage with children one-on-one, not just teaching them how to read but also mentoring those who show genuine interest in the kids and their education. The rooms are alive with activity as volunteers guide the children in a personal way that helps develop the emotional and social aspects of learning, not just academics.

Stamp is passionate about the program, she says. She also serves as vice president of Women United, the Youngstown United Way’s leadership program for women.

“I have never done anything more rewarding in my life than the volunteer work I do with the United Way,” says Stamp. “I personally know the destruction illiteracy does to a person and a family.”

Throughout the Mahoning and Shenango valleys, volunteers give their time and money to advance the United Ways’ missions.

The focus of these programs is not only to address needs such as providing food, clothing and shelter for the less fortunate but to also alleviate many of the causes of poverty.

“We as the United Way, with limited dollars, are getting to the root cause,” says Jim Micsky, executive director of the United Way of Mercer County. “The dollars we invest go into prevention programming and early education. The birth to age six timeframe for children is crucial and the community needs to be engaged.”

Success By 6 is just one of the programs to address one of United Way’s top objectives: to effect poverty through early education.

“If children aren’t reading by third grade, they are less likely to graduate high school and go on to a career,” says Stacia Erdos, vice president of strategic planning for the United Way of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley.

The six-week Success By 6 summer program focuses on math, reading and communication skills to prepare children for kindergarten, with two teachers per 20 students.

Through the use of quarterly report cards, Erdos says donors can see improvements in literacy scores and attendance.

“It’s not only great academically but emotionally and socially for kids,” adds Micsky. “Then they will be ready for their first day of school.”

Along with Success By 6, which is a program common to United Way chapters nationwide, the Youngstown chapter operates its own pilot program, Success After 6.

Success After 6 deals not only with academics but also “barriers to learning,” Erdos says, such as coming to school hungry, needing eyeglasses and ill-fitting shoes.

“We offer a warm meal every night and last year we provided 300 pairs of eyeglasses to needy children,” she says.

The three-hour after-school program was started in 2015 in Youngstown Community School and expanded last year to Taft Elementary School as part of the larger Taft Promise Neighborhood initiative.

The Taft Promise Neighborhood is a collaboration of 50 organizations and agencies, including United Way, AmeriCorps Vista and Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp. The initiative’s mission is to improve the neighborhood at all levels, from education to blight to job readiness.

Similarly, the United Way of Trumbull County has shifted its focus to results and program impact, rather than simply financing local nonprofits.

Instead of giving money to programs a few times a year, the staff meets with those receiving support and works to develop initiatives that can address the root causes of problems facing communities.

“Reading Great By 8 was the result of a meeting with the elementary school principals,” says Ginny Pasha, president and CEO of the United Way of Trumbull County. “They said they needed help getting kids through the Third Grade Reading Guarantee Program [an initiative of the Ohio Department of Education]. We put together an advisory team that included the Trumbull County Educational Service Center, Warren City Schools and the Family & Children First Council.”

Pasha says partnerships with organizations such as the Trumbull County Retired Teachers Association, the Mahoning Valley Scrappers and the Cafaro Co. have greatly benefited their book drives.

“Reading Great By 8 is our passion project,” says Esther Buschau, director of corporate marketing for the Cafaro Co. “We are a cash contributor and also provide books for the schools. One of our books is Captain McFinn, authored by our own Phyllis Cafaro,” wife of Anthony Cafaro Sr., the company’s retired CEO.

Ready Set Go is a two-week summer literacy intervention program designed to help students pass the Ohio Third Grade Reading Test, Pasha continues. ABC Reading Ready is also a two-week reading course designed to help children transition from kindergarten to first grade.

“Reading 4 Fun was started at [Warren’s] Jefferson PK-8 and McDonald [Local] Schools in 2014,” says Pasha. “We partnered with the Warren Junior Women’s League to give every second grader a new book, a book bag and a craft themed to the book. That year’s book was ‘Scaredy Squirrel.’ It came with a baggie that contained puffed balls and googly eyes to make squirrels from.”

Gale Young, executive director of the United Way of Lawrence County, says that families in her agency’s service area are paying between 60% and 80% of household income on housing.

“We have partnered with our county commissioners and local agencies to do a housing study for Lawrence County,” says Young. “The study will be completed next month … so our programming will be born out of that. The Disability Options Network works with us to educate people on home ownership.”

The Lawrence County United Way also is involved in downtown revitalization efforts partnering with the Lawrence County Regional Chamber of Commerce, Arts and Education at the Hoyt and the city of New Castle.

Young says efforts are underway to renovate the county’s only public swimming pool at Cascade Park. “The pool has been closed for 17 years,” she says. “We have been working on the project for three years.”

In northern Columbiana County, the local United Way chapter, led by George Hays, donated $28,900 to the Family Recovery Center, an addiction and substance abuse center.

The center educates local schools through the Aiming High program that’s designed to inform students in kindergarten through sixth grade about the risk factors involved with alcohol, tobacco and drugs.

The organization also operates recovery houses. Two of the houses, Renaissance House 1 and 2 in Salem and Mingo Junction, are for men. Family Recovery also runs Fleming House in Lisbon for women with children.

Organizations supported by the United Way of Northern Columbiana County include the American Red Cross, Camp Fire, Columbiana Meals on Wheels, Making Kids Count and Quota International of Salem.

The chapter also supports the local 2-1-1 hotline, based in Youngstown, which connects callers to assistance providers who provide information related to emergencies, health care, housing, employment and re-entering the workforce after serving jail time.

“Anyone can pick up the phone and dial 2-1-1 and it goes to the office in Youngstown manned by trained people who can respond 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” says Hays. “The system has access to every conceivable service that one can think of. In a small county like ours, it would be impossible to function without it.”

In southern Columbiana, the East Liverpool United Way raised $95,000 last year to support area nonprofits.

Alex Axtell, board member for the United Way of Southern Columbiana County says agencies like the YMCA, Christina House and Family Care Ministries each have their own missions such as homelessness and battered women.

“They each help us, and we help them,” Axtell says. “They will come to our functions and help sell tickets … or maybe just ring the bell for the Salvation Army.”

Josh Lytle, a volunteer with the United Way of Southern Columbiana County, is president of the nonprofit Family Care Ministries. The United Way provides financial support for the organization. Family Care Ministries helps those dealing with substance abuse, behavioral and co-dependent addictions.

“We can deal with people right at their point of crisis,” says Lytle, who says his group sees upward of 90 people per week. “They don’t have to make an appointment three weeks from now. There is no charge for our services.”

Lytle, a former heroin addict who found sobriety through faith more than a decade ago, recently took part in “Gateway to Hope,” a documentary about the opioid crisis in southern Columbiana County.

“For the United Way, it is just a constant, subtle pressure of reminding the community that these issues aren’t insurmountable,” says the Mercer chapter’s Micsky. “We are a small community that has great people and we just need to work collectively to focus on things that are affecting poverty.”

Pictured: Ashley Goff teaches Quinn Shirey about saving money as part of the United Way of Mercer County’s Success By Six program.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.