United Way sharpens focus toward long-term solutions

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A change in how the United Way of the Lowcountry will begin funding its partner agencies in 2017 has already begun to boost volunteer efforts and increase donations.

"Actually, we are currently tracking a bit ahead of where we were this time last year," said Tina Lamb Gentry, president and chief executive officer for the community resource agency.

"Announcing a change in our model has energized the volunteers who serve on the panels that make funding suggestions, so we believe we will continue to see the community support these changes through their donations, as well," she said.

The Community Impact model, already in use across the Southeast in Columbia, Greenville, Charleston and Charlotte, encourages collaboration among non-profit agencies and community partners, she said.

"The United Way of the Lowcountry believes it is the most capable organization to mobilize people, multiply investments and maximize opportunities so people in the Lowcountry receive the education and basic human needs required to lead productive lives," Gentry said.

United Way's partner agencies cover nearly every human need. Gentry said the new model will be better able to allocate the resources of those agencies and use them in collaboration to solve future problems while providing relief in emergencies.

Second Helpings, the food rescue and distribution network, is an example.

Executive Director Maureen Korzik said there are several ways the agency collaborates with its clients and other groups. The non-profit organization moves surplus food from grocery stores to 65 food pantries, soup kitchens, churches and non-profit agencies in three counties.

"Everyone generally understands that the root cause of hunger is poverty at some level," she said.

One way to attack poverty, Korzik said, is to collect information about the needs of the people they serve and share that data with the groups that receive food through Second Helpings.

The organization will also be exploring ways to provide additional nutrition through alternate sources such as farms, farmers' markets and community gardens for fresh foods and produce.

Bluffton Self Help has already made some changes in its operations in relation to the United Way's future model.

"I think we're just doing a lot of collaboration now and maybe defining more what we are doing with other agencies," said Lili Coleman, executive director of Bluffton Self Help. "We are taking our name seriously."

Coleman said a recent effort provides clients with more time to learn computer skills and that is prompting the community agency to lease an adjacent facility to hold computer classes with equipment funded by United Way.

"We are using them to teach people budgeting. We are partnering with local banks like PNC and TDBank to do financial workshops with our clients. And that's to move people out of poverty and become more self-reliant," she said.

Collaboration is an on-going process for The Literacy Center, which focuses on teaching adults to read, write and do basic math in order to succeed.

"We have always partnered with other organizations to promote our programing and support our students," said Pam Wall, executive director.

The Literacy Center recently created a program called Family Literacy 360, partnering with Deep Well and St. Francis Catholic School, which have similar client bases.

The program came about following a request from the center's community base saying that the focus should circle around from adult literacy to include the impact on child literacy.

"The University of South Carolina in Beaufort created an educational model that holds classes for parents with their child learning together in the same classroom," Wall said. "The parent is learning that they are their child's first teacher and they learn what their child is learning in school at that time."

Interagency cooperation is how the United Way plans make the most of its partners' resources.

"Reaction publicly and privately has been overwhelmingly supportive," said Gentry. "Several of our partner agencies have stepped forward to tell us they welcome the change, while in the community we have heard from donors who are excited to see their generosity help fund innovative, measurable programs."

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.

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