United Way changes focus for 2007

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

United Way of Southeast Missouri is changing its focus.

"We haven't changed our mission. We're still bringing people together," said Nancy Jernigan, the charity's executive director, Jernigan presented the plan Tuesday during a media preview of the upcoming annual fundraising campaign.

Rather than continue using money and support primarily for those who are most in need, she said United Way will look for root causes of those families' problems.

"The stronger we make every family, the stronger we make the whole community," she said.

Using demographic research -- some of which is still being collected, she said -- a four-point support program is being developed to:

* help children succeed in school, with programs such as Success by 6 and Born Learning, which kicks off Oct. 6 at Cape Girardeau Junior High.

* help families reach financial independence though Leading & Inspiring Families to Excel (LIFE).

* help low-income or otherwise challenged people of all ages live independently with Teach, Hope, Reach, Involve, Value, Encourage (THRIVE).

* draw more area residents together to help others.

Jernigan said this year's theme is "Pay It Forward." The upcoming campaign features a video highlighting volunteer Steve Barry. He went from being an active Habitat for Humanity volunteer, to being a home recipient, she said. Now, in addition to volunteering, he donates $30 from every paycheck to United Way.

"We all have a role in this," she said. "It's not just up to the social service sector, the government or business. It's up to all of us, individually and collectively."

She said early research reflects growing financial distress on middle-class families. At the same time, education studies indicate as many as 25 percent of kindergartners are not ready to start school -- and 20 percent of Cape Girardeau high school students don't graduate.

Programs to help families budget better may start with helping them get bank accounts, she said, citing the declining number of bank account among younger Americans.

"Without a bank account, you have no savings. You have no way of getting assets," she said.

Children will benefit from programs through the Cape Girardeau's Boys and Girls Club that prepare the youngest for school and help older students succeed academically.

"Everything we do now is seen through the lens of, 'Are we going to strengthen families?'" she said.

One of the problems researchers found is that families don't always realize they can benefit from support programs, or don't know they are eligible. While a typical Cape Girardeau family of four needs an income of about $33,000, she said, nearly half, 48 percent, bring home less than $35,000.

The big challenge in the coming year, she said, will be bringing together small groups of people to brainstorm ways of helping neighborhoods. The River Corrider Task Force, a southside action group, has been meeting recently, and she'd like to foster similar ongoing conversations around the city.

"We've done it before. We're doing it again," she said.

On Nov. 13, United Way Missouri will launch a Dial 211 program, offering callers referrals to services.

Next week, Aug. 23 through 25, marks the return of Days of Caring, which invites any resident to volunteer for a host of short- or long-term community projects. A pancake breakfast, cooked by Jay Knudtson and Barbara Lohr, mayors of Cape Girardeau and Jackson respectively, kicks off the annual volunteer drive.

United Ways 2007 fund-raising campaign starts on Aug. 30. To learn more, visit www.unitedwayofsemo.org.

pmcnichol@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 127

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