How the united way is engaging a community to better itself

Photography by Tina Sargeant

It’s hard to create lasting change. The most impactful and sustainable improvements to a community rarely come from focusing on obvious problems. Giving a meal to someone who’s hungry solves immediate hunger, but not the reason for the hunger in the first place. Providing medicine to someone who’s sick relieves the symptoms, but may not necessarily cure the ailment. Exacting true change requires commitment and dedication. If we desire growth and development, we must dive in and get our hands dirty. We must be committed to solving the root of the problem, to following the process through to completion. United Way of Central Florida is doing just that.
Historically, the United Way was an organization that helped nonprofit charities find funding for their programs. Started in Denver, Colorado, in 1887 by five concerned citizens, the United Way raised $21,700 in their first year to address their city’s welfare problems. By 1974 the United Way had raised more than $1 billion in America and Canada. More than 125 years later, United Way is still focused on mobilizing the caring power of communities and making a difference in people’s lives ( However, the approach to difference-making has evolved from simple fundraising to purposeful and careful allocation of resources to specific community needs.
The United Way of Central Florida focuses on the areas of education, health, and income. In 2013 alone, 60,000 people in Polk, Highlands, and Hardee Counties were connected with United Way of Central Florida programs and services that empowered them to build better lives for themselves.
Lakeland is full of organizations  working hard to bring sustainable, positive change to our community: Girls, Inc.; Salvation Army; Peace River Center; Learning Resource Center; VISTE; and Alliance for Independence, for example. These organizations, and many more, are digging into the issues facing our community and putting in tireless effort to help our community grow and evolve. Aside from their desire to better the world around them, they all have one thing in common: they work with the United Way of Central Florida.
If you’re familiar with the investment and effort nonprofit work takes, you’re probably wondering, “How could United Way possibly reach so many people?” Sixty thousand is a massive number! The answer is actually quite simple and it makes a whole lot of sense. The United Way is in constant contact with the community around them. Working hand in hand with the people on the ground, the United Way is able to effectively and efficiently plug in resources where they are most needed.
Through teams of volunteers grouped into Community Investment and Community Impact Teams, the United Way connects local needs to programs and services. These teams of volunteers bring myriad passions, perspectives, and skills together and help decide which programs receive funding each year. Through a strategic and well-thought-out process, they work with and monitor partner agencies and programs to ensure the United Way’s funds are used effectively for the biggest and most meaningful impact on our community.

In 2013 the United Way of Central Florida raised over $9 million to give back to Polk, Hardee, and Highlands County through the Be Bold Campaign. With this money they made a substantial difference in the areas of education, health, and income. Additionally, these funds helped many people in crisis receive assistance through organizations that provide safety-net services.
The scale of the United Way’s impact is impressive. More impressive, however, is the organization’s vision to impact more lives through increased giving and accountability. Several United Way contributors speak emphatically about the need to do more. The 2014 campaign, Be Bolder, will kick off in late August with a goal to raise $10 million.
“We have to Be Bolder to make a difference,” said Vice President of Community and Strategy for the United Way of Central Florida, Sherri Diaz. “We raised more than expected last year, and we want to push even further, not shy away,” said Campaign Chair and Community Investment Team Volunteer, Jennifer Jonsson.
So, Lakeland, why should we care? Why should we get involved with and support the United Way? The answer is obvious: the work that the United Way does is necessary, and their ambitions for the future are grand but within reach. However, the goal is only reachable with the whole community behind it. The United Way of Central Florida needs our help to serve our families, our neighbors, our students.

Last year, the United Way of Central Florida helped over 25,000 children succeed in school. Children who are prepared for kindergarten or receive afterschool assistance are more likely to graduate high school, giving them a far greater chance of living successful adult lives.
Summer programs are particularly helpful for students, because children who aren’t involved in some type of academic enrichment over the summer can lose two to three months, and as much as half a year, of education in the three months they’re away from school. Students who start at a disadvantage fall farther and farther behind during these months; their families often don’t know how to help them. Through organizations like the Learning Resource Center, Campfire USA, and Girls, Inc., more than 16,000 students received after-school tutoring, mentoring, or were a part of summer education camps.
Last year, over 9,000 children were involved in kindergarten readiness programs funded by the United Way of Central Florida. For every one month of participation in one of these programs, students gained an impressive five months of increased vocabulary scores. In addition to funding these programs, the United Way helps teachers receive training on better ways to work with children, identifies resources to give children the tools to build a successful future, and locates generous donors to supply books to children in need.
Through the 2014 campaign, the United Way is aiming to increase their After School Academic Assistance and Early Literacy Camps by 250 children each. This 500-student increase will cost $500,000, a small price to pay for the good it will do for our students and our community.

Through giving, advocating, and volunteering, you can improve lives, strengthen communities, and build a better tomorrow. No matter which avenue you choose, be bold. Change won’t happen without you!

A holistic understanding of our community includes awareness that economic status is the number-one factor in a child’s academic success. According to The Ledger, 94,000 people in suburban Polk County live in poverty (The Ledger, 2013). The United Way is keenly aware of the financial needs of this community. In response to these needs, over 3,000 Central Florida residents received financial training through United Way programs in 2013.
This increased financial success compounds to help more than 4,000 children find increased stability in their homes. Organizations like the Salvation Army help families in crisis get back on their feet through housing, academic assistance, and financial education programs. Families participating in Salvation Army programs have access to financial education classes where they are taught strategies on how to save money and improve their credit scores. While enrolled in these classes, children are also given access to this financial education, providing tools that will prepare them for their future. Children at the Salvation Army can participate in the HALO Center which, through the help of the United Way of Central Florida, provides free preschool and after-school care with highly trained teachers. These resources are important factors in closing the income-based education gap for children in Polk, Hardee, and Highlands Counties.
The 2014 campaign has a specific goal: to connect more than 4,000 households with Online Financial Education through programs like Income Counselors and the United Way’s Next Steps, a program that will match a family’s savings up to a predetermined dollar amount.

According to the United Way of Central Florida’s website, Polk County is the seventh most obese county in the nation. Through the years, UWCFsponsored programs have helped residents in Polk, Highlands, and Hardee Counties with many health-related concerns; in 2013, however, they focused their sights specifically on obesity and obesity-related
health issues. Through organizations like VISTE, Lakeland Volunteers in Medicine, The Talbot House, and Peace River Center, over 15,000 people received services that helped them learn how to lower their body mass index (BMI), gave them access to medically necessary prescriptions, and provided treatment for mental-health issues and disabilities.

A healthy community avoids much of the high, personal, and monetary costs of preventable illness. Healthy adults are less likely to need emergency treatment for preventable diseases and illnesses, and are better able to care for themselves as they age. (

To this end, United Way’s Health Programs are working! In 2014 the Be Bolder health-related campaign goal is to invest in more successful programs in order to help more than 4,000 new clients through nutrition and exercise classes, and connect them with health care for chronic diseases.

United Way’s success in creating sustainable social change depends entirely upon the people of the community in which it works. Anyone can be a part of the United Way. You, too, can Be Bolder!
There are several ways you can get involved in United Way of Central Florida’s 2014 campaign.

Through Corporate Campaigns you and the people in your everyday workplace can give back to the greater community. You can also make individual contributions through Leadership Giving, Young Leaders Society, Toqueville Society, Legacy Giving, and the Women’s Leadership Council.
Starting a workplace campaign or joining one of these societies means more books will be given to children who need them. Senior citizens will receive nutrition and healthy
habits classes, and people with substance-abuse problems will get connected to healthy solutions that will help them lead happy, fulfilling lives.

Champion the causes United Way is affecting. Be loud and be visible. Whether online or on the ground, lend your voice to the sound of social change. You have the opportunity to “advance the common good, whether you’re speaking out to improve education, income, or health, reaching out to members of Congress, or wearing a [United Way] T-shirt to show your support, you can help inspire hope and create opportunities for a better tomorrow” (

Join a United Way Community Investment Team and be a part of the process. Community Investment Teams are comprised of volunteers from many different experiences, professions, and backgrounds. These teams have the unique responsibility of analyzing program funding proposals, visiting agencies, monitoring programs, and making funding recommendations. CITs have the opportunity to get to know the programs to which the United Way gives.Community Investment Teams see the change, on the ground, that United Way makes in our community.
Become a ReadingPal, and work one-on-one with children during the school day to improve their reading skills. ReadingPals give children a positive, encouraging interaction with an adult while also helping them prepare for a better future. Become a money coach. Money coaches mentor and guide struggling families to financial stability in order to provide for themselves.
Visit the United Way’s website at uwcf. org to find out more about how to get involved. The possibilities are endless! You can volunteer on your own, as a family, or with a group of friends and colleagues.
The Lakelander challenges you to be part of the solution that brings lasting change to our city and our county. Get involved today! While financial contributions are certainly important,
it’s not all about the money; it’s about being bolder, diving in and getting your hands dirty. Through giving, advocating, and volunteering, you can improve lives, strengthen communities, and build a better tomorrow. No matter which avenue you choose, Be Bold. Change won’t happen without you!
For more information about these programs, or if you need a referral to a program to meet your need, dial 2-1-1 or 863.648.1515; 1.800.881.UWAY (8929); or visit