Other Opinions

Happy 25th, United Way of South Mississippi

Cynthia Walker
Cynthia Walker

The year 2017 marks the 25th anniversary of United Way of South Mississippi (UWSM) and we’re excited about the impact our agency has made on the Coast. It was in 1992 that three United Ways came together to form our multi-county United Way. But we still hear the question, “Exactly what does our United Way do?” That answer involves more than you might imagine.

Since 1992, UWSM has infused over $25 million back into the community through grants and programs. Organizations like the Gulf Coast Center for Nonviolence, Moore Community House, the Nourishing Place, school districts, Salvation Army, Manna Ministries, Red Cross, Boys & Girls Clubs, the Hancock County Human Resource Center, CASA, Catholic Social Services, Boys Scouts, Lynn Meadows, CLIMB and countless others have received donations from United Way to change the future. We are proud that UWSM returns $.99 of every dollar donated back to the communities we serve.

We also learned a lot since we began by listening to our donors and community partners. Most recently United Way asked our communities what they wanted to see done with the contributions. In short, they asked us to insure our children have a brighter future and focus on education.

A plan emerged that formed a “3-legged stool” approach to support parents, children under 8 and their teachers. The plan sought ways to help parents understand their crucial role as their child’s first teacher. So United Way got involved in Excel By 5 programming. Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library was begun by the Women’s Leadership Council of UWSM in 2013 to respond to the statistic that there is 1 book for every 300 children in high poverty neighborhoods. Today, UWSM spends $51,000 each year so that free books go out each month to 2,200 children under age 5.

In 2016, working to increase support for parents with young children, United Way introduced a free phone app, called Vroom that sends parents a daily reminder about things to do with their child to build school readiness skills. In early 2017, we received a grant that will allow us to put Kindle-like tablets in the hands of new parents to provide parenting information and to enable parents to tele-connect to needed medical staff. And since 2012, UWSM has led the state as a Grade Level Reading community, winning recognition as one of 38 early education Pacesetter communities getting it right across the country in 2014, 2015 and 2016. The programs implemented by UWSM also earned the Coast recognition as one of only 26 national community finalists in the United States that have proven through data to make a difference in the educational achievement of young children.

Since 2015, United Way’s partner grants have provided 260 4-year-olds with a free preschool experience through PreK4Ward.

In 2016, UWSM received a grant from the Phil Hardin Foundation that provided training for teachers in kindergarten to third grade. During the 10 training sessions, teachers learned new approaches to classroom activities and were given about $250 worth of materials to share with students. The total investment in this program has been almost $100,000 since 2015 alone.

Each year, United Way provides assistance to families struggling with prescription costs through our FamilyWize prescription program. And the Earned Income Tax Credit program that we support provides free tax assistance by trained IRS volunteers for families each spring. That program brought back $4.15 million to the pockets of families and individuals who made less than $52,000 annually in 2016.

Every day our staff also works to support other community agencies and programs, too, but we still hear people ask about our overhead costs. The short answer is yes, we have them. Is there a business out there that doesn’t pay a staff to execute their mission? Unfortunately there isn’t a nonprofit that can do it any differently.

When you add up the impact over the past 25 years that UWSM has had on the Gulf Coast, the value of seeing it continue for the next 25 years is obvious. Whether you’re most proud of the almost $5 million disseminated after Hurricane Katrina into the four counties we serve — Harrison, Hancock, Stone and Pearl River counties — or the impact of the grants given out to community partners each year, we hope you’ll feel proud to help us celebrate our 25 years of making an impact. I know that I am.

Cynthia Minton Walker is the CEO of the United Way of South Mississippi.