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What's next? United Way looks to next 100 years

by Lindsey Wells | November 19, 2017 at 4:00 a.m.

As 2017 marks the centennial anniversary of United Way of the Ouachitas, the organization is now looking forward to the next 100 years. What's next?

In 2015, United Way of the Ouachitas performed a yearlong broad-based community assessment complete with focus groups, electronic surveys, and interviews with community leaders to attempt to identify the community's key issues.

United Way of the Ouachitas Executive Director Jane Browning said the answer they received was conclusive: childhood poverty. The organization's board of directors then adopted a three-year strategic plan focusing on community impact on issues addressing childhood poverty.

"Thirty-three percent of the children living in this county are living in poverty. A third of the children. And the percentage is even higher in Hot Springs as a city; it's over 40 percent," Browning said.

"The poverty figures in Arkansas in general have gone down since the plan was put in place," Browning added. "We've got one more year in this strategic plan."

With this impact focus on childhood poverty, Browning said United Way went to all of its partner agencies and asked them to present a program that addresses childhood poverty. One project that came out of this request was the American Red Cross Pillowcase Project, a free, interactive preparedness program designed for youths 8-11 years old that aims to increase awareness and understanding of natural hazards and teaches safety, emotional coping skills, and personal preparedness.

"They go out into the schools and teach kiddos in elementary schools about emergency preparedness, because house fires are a huge thing in Arkansas, and tornadoes always come. So, don't be afraid all the time, but be aware that these are dangers. You don't have to be afraid; you be prepared," Browning said. "So they actually have these pillowcases that are provided by Disney World to the Red Cross and volunteers stuff them with a flashlight and granola bars and a bottle of water and pair of fuzzy slippers and a teddy bear and they say, 'This is your go-bag. If the smoke alarm goes off, grab this bag and go.'"

Browning said any agency can aim their program to create a way to address childhood poverty.

The Project Hope Food Bank designed its backpack program to provide food to children.

"These kids take these backpacks home on the weekend. During the week they get free lunch, but on the weekends their families are stuck, so they get these backpacks full of food," Browning said.

At the end of the three years, the board of directors will reevaluate what has been done and what has been accomplished and then decide what the next step will be.

Browning said there are a number of community issues that need to be addressed that will be dealt with in the future.

"We'll just start ticking off the problems as they arise and dealing with them to the best of our ability, and, again, focusing all of the community resources on a particular problem. The board might say, 'OK, we've dealt with that but in the meantime this opioid crisis has gone cuckoo, we really need to deal with that, the kids can't even stay at home because their parents are addicts.' Maybe that's where they'll go. Or maybe they'll say, 'OK, we've talked about the early childhood literacy skills and getting started in school, maybe now we want to look at the next thing which is third grade literacy levels, or high school graduation rates.' This strategic planning will lead to the next 100 years," she added.

United Way of the Ouachitas' board of directors is made up of 24 individuals representing the city and county government, Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce, educational institutions, and the community at large.

"We have this representative board that kind of bridges all across the community," Browning said.

One way the board is strengthening that bridge and helping to make assurances to the business community that their funds are being spent in the most efficient way possible is through United Way's adoption of the Charity Tracker program.

The organization spent $7,000 for a universal subscription to Charity Tracker, which means an unlimited number of agencies can participate. So far, about 30 local agencies have signed up, Browning said.

Charities can sign in to the online program and list a description of their organization and their services. The program also includes a case management element.

"It's like a database program, a really rich, robust responsive database system where, as people come in and ask for help, you enter their data and demographics and what you did to help them and all that, and then you can print out reports -- if your funder wants to know how you spent your money, boom, you have an instant report that comes out of it," Browning said.

The program also features a community dashboard on the homepage so the good deeds and money given from each agency show up collectively in one spot.

"But the real great thing is that when Joe comes into your office and says 'I need utility assistance,' you can look Joe up in the system and you say, 'Well, Joe, I see here that you just went next door to that other program and asked for that very same thing and they gave it to you, so why are you here? Is there something else we can help you with?' So this double dipping and scamming of the system, it just shuts it down. So that's the kind of thing United Way can do in this sort of collective big umbrella, reaching across the community," Browning said.

In addition to providing financial assistance to those in need in Hot Springs, United Way of the Ouachitas regularly hosts summits and community meetings that concentrate on different local issues.

In May 2016, United Way hosted a summit on childhood success that concentrated on investments in early childhood learning. According to Browning, a child's brain develops faster from birth to 5 years old than it does in any other period of life.

"So, you can do work training with a 28-year-old later and try to regroup and recapture some of what they didn't get along the way, or you can put that some of money into 100 2-year-olds and start from the beginning."

About 88 people, including school counselors, school nurses, school administrators and child care providers were in attendance at this daylong meeting. A panel of legislators were also in attendance, including state Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-District 24, who chairs the House Education Committee.

In the fall 2016, United Way organized a regional summit on affordable housing during which 55 community leaders joined together and spent an entire day attempting to hash through the homelessness problem in Hot Springs.

"A lot of the homelessness that you see is directly related to the lack of affordable housing. A huge chunk of your salary goes into rent -- well, what if you don't have a salary? Then what do you do? There is very little affordable housing. They spent a day going over what the housing authority could be doing, is there something that the city government should be doing about these landlords who aren't keeping up their property. I don't know if any long-term effect is really going to come out of that but we have a lot of discussion going on that wasn't happening before," Browning said.

"Those are the kinds of things that United Way can do, be sort of a thought leader in the community and, again, bringing people together, convening these operations. Hot Springs has this wonderful capacity for collective action and collaboration so we're just building on those natural things to make it better," she added.

All of United Way's board members are volunteers, which Browning said is "an invaluable resource we have available to us to tap into."

Beginning Jan. 1, 2018, Michelle Ratcliff will assume the role as president of the board.

"(Ratcliff) is just a force of nature, very busy, and she's really low-key, quiet. She's going to be a wonderful president," Browning said.

Browning has plans of her own for 2018, she said.

"I'm retiring at the end of December. After 45 years of being in the nonprofit sector, I turn 70 on the 7th of December and I just think nobody should have to work past that," Browning said.

United Way of the Ouachitas Resource Development Director Sarah Fowler is Browning's successor. Fowler will start out the new year as the new executive director.

"Both of us have been here at this United Way for three years but she has a lengthy history, 10 years at the Fort Smith United Way, so she's very experienced," Browning said.

Tabloids on 11/19/2017

Print Headline: What's next? United Way looks to next 100 years

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