Sunday, March 11, 2018

AmeriCorps Gets Things Done

In Celebration of National Community Service Week, we salute our AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America) members who complete a year of national service at United Way of Pierce County. VISTA members serve as a catalyst for change, living and working alongside community members to advance local solutions. 
Michael and Natasha at Walker High School

Michealea Lemons, the Education VISTA and Natasha Laitila, the Hunger-Free Pierce County VISTA, network with community leaders about how to address issues of poverty within Pierce County. 

Michealea assists in managing the Education programs at United Way, which include READ United: Afterschool, READ United: Summer Learning and Lil Readers. She also attends community meetings and outreach fairs to inform locals about community service opportunities.  

Natasha assists in organizing and managing cooking demonstration volunteer programs for food banks, creates and builds collaborative relationships among 30+ organizations by facilitating the Hunger-Free Pierce County Collaborative, Power Packs Partners Network and Pierce County Summer Meals. 

By connecting the community with United Way, our VISTAs are creating a partnership that will have long lasting benefits. Through their efforts, they are helping to lay a foundation for sustainable programming and community engagement. Both VISTAs are gearing up for United Way’s Summer Meals and Summer Learning Programs-- focused on feeding children in high need, low resource areas, simultaneously provide books
to read and volunteers facilitate the work. 

LIVE United with our VISTA's and United Way of Pierce County by visiting or to see how you can give back to the community. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Go Further with Food

Submitted by Guest Blogger Shawn Paton, Director, Volunteer Engagement, Community Building & Investments, United Way of Pierce County

In Pierce County, where obesity and chronic disease diagnosis rates are higher than the national average, nutrition education is an important piece to increasing the health and well-being of our residents. Health-related issues directly attributable to food insecurity include: asthma, COPD, type 2 diabetes, obesity, arthritis, gout, lupus, fibromyalgia, as well as anemia and hospitalizations for children. Indirect health costs related to hunger include dental issues, increased doctor and emergency room visits and increased need for prescription medications.

What contributes to poor nutrition?

One in six households in our community cannot afford enough food for all household members to lead healthy lives.

Some families lack transportation, so they are unable to access grocery stores or even food banks. For those living in food deserts-- where the closest food source is a corner store or mini-mart featuring high priced, unhealthy food options-- it is difficult to find affordable, high-quality fresh food. For some, the barrier is knowledge about how to plan meals, shop on a budget or prepare healthy meals at home.

In the past, cooking skills were passed down from generation to generation, but this trend has been broken, with many parents working multiple jobs to make ends meet leaving little time for home-cooked meals, resulting in millions of people across the country lacking even the most basic food preparation skills. The Hunger-Free Pierce County Collaborative is working together to help all Pierce County residents lead healthier lives through nutrition education projects.

Colorful Cooking Made Easy is a nutrition education program featuring trained volunteers who perform cooking demonstrations at local food banks, teach cooking and nutrition classes and lead grocery store tours all designed to help families learn how to shop for and prepare healthy meals from scratch.  Skills taught during Colorful Cooking Made Easy programming include meal planning, shopping on a budget, healthy cooking and help to make healthy eating a daily reality.

The hunger collaborative food bank partners are also working to help individuals and families understand the importance of selecting healthier food options by making it easy for food bank visitors to find those options among the various products available. Colorful Cooking Made Easy food bank cooking demonstrators take fresh produce in stock at the pantry that day and create healthy, delicious and simple meals, providing clients with the recipes and ingredients to take home and prepare themselves. The emergency food system is also working to increase the amount of fresh produce, dairy and proteins available for food bank clients.

How can you help change the story for individuals and families in Pierce County? There are many ways to get involved in the fight against hunger in our community. Host a food or dairy drive. Hold a soup kit making project. Volunteer to lead a cooking class or grocery store to learn more and to get involved!

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Breakfast After the Bell-- A Small Victory for Kids

Guest Blogger: Shawn Paton, Community Investment, Strong Families & Basic Needs, United Way

A bill that United Way’s across the state have advocated for with legislators for a number of years will soon be signed into law! Breakfast after the Bell moves school breakfast service from before school, when many children do not have the opportunity to participate prior to the start of class, to after the start of the school day, so it is available to all kids regardless of how early they arrive at school.

In Pierce County, more than 50,000 students are enrolled in free and reduced-price school meal programs. Children struggling with hunger have more health issues, miss more days of school and may have behavioral issues.  Making sure that these kids have breakfast means children who arrive at school hungry aren’t forced to wait until lunch to eat. Breakfast gives these kids the energy to focus and do better in school.

Many of these children rely on free school breakfast and lunch to provide foundational nutrition during the week, so Breakfast after the Bell is a victory for hungry children! However, these same children are at risk of going hungry on weekends and school breaks when free school meals aren’t available. That is why United Way of Pierce County supports the Power Packs program, providing food packs on weekends and over school breaks for those children most at risk of not having enough food at home.

Despite the economic boom in our region, hunger is a growing issue. 

Our food bank partners report that nearly 70% of households they serve have at least one working adult. Forty percent of their clients are under 18 years of age. 

Food bank visitors report having difficulty making ends meet because of rapidly increasing housing costs, child care costs and more. Some working families make too much to qualify for free and reduced-price meal programs, but because of other household expenses, they are not able to afford school lunches or even to put enough food on the table at the end of the month.

United Way is working in partnership with the Hunger-Free Pierce County Collaborative to fight hunger in our community. Visit to find out how you can get involved! 

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Reflections on a Day of Advocacy

Guest Blog by Lindsay Morgan Tracy, Vice President, Community Impact, United Way of Pierce County

On February 1, 2018, a contingency of United Way of Pierce County advocates, descended upon our state’s Capitol in Olympia to talk about legislative priorities and concerns. A group of fifteen staff, friends and board members, spent the day meeting with our legislators or their aides to talk about keys issues that are important to our community.

One of the key themes at our From Poverty to Possibilities event was the importance of being fully engaged in policies and advocacy efforts that impact the stability of Pierce County. Our attendees highlighted the need to assess and review policies that are keeping people poor or even incentivizing them to stay in poverty (a/k/a the Benefit’s Cliff). 

Spending a day on Capitol Hill takes commitment for all who take the time. It is a significant commitment from the business community that allowed their employees to take the day to champion causes important to the greater good of our residents. Special thanks to WSECU, State Farm, Western State Hospital and CHI-Franciscan for allowing your staff to participate in this good work!

As our group divided to conquer our 20 meetings, we received a lot of feedback from our political leaders. While we don’t spend a lot of time in Olympia, this trip reinforced the fact that our work is continuing to be heard by Washington State leadership. 

A few of the key takeaways include:

  • Our legislators love the fact that 2-1-1 is a life changing and often lifesaving program that many aides refer to constituents when they call their representatives/senators and let them know they need help. This was heard repeatedly throughout the day. It’s hard to even imagine how the aides would respond if South Sound 2-1-1 didn’t serve the Pierce, Thurston and Lewis communities.
  • Our Pierce County legislative leaders work well together and they consistently all meet (as Republicans and Democrats) to discuss bipartisan ways to move forward - - this is rare at a statewide level and nationally.
  • Corey Mosesly’s leadership in a bill with Representative Laurie Jinkins continued to get support (HB2730) for business tax credits to reduce cost barriers for adults attending college to further their careers. 
  • Legislators truly enjoyed having kids there to learn about the legislative body of work. In fact, last year, Matt Levi’s daughters were instrumental in advocating for Breakfast After The Bell, which had just passed on January 30! The girls were thrilled and even more impressive—legislators remembered them from last year and continued to encourage them to champion for important causes. 
  • We also learned that our Strong Family legislation was not fully supported, as some legislators desired more accountability in the language of the bills. They were very articulate with their reasoning and we appreciated their time to discuss specifics with us so we could learn what we could do to ensure movement.

The day ended with a reception at the Governor’s Mansion where our President & CEO, Dona Ponepinto served as the emcee. After Governor Jay Inslee’s address, one of our younger delegates (yes, my son, Eban) got a picture with him so he could write his very own blog for school about his Day on the Hill with United Way of Pierce County.

Learn more about our 2018 State Policy Agenda or visit to stay abreast with current issues.  Check out additional photos from the day!

Monday, January 22, 2018

New Year, New You: Opportunities for Change

Guest Blog by Allison Loft, 
Education and Engagement Manager, United Way of Pierce County

What is your New Year’s resolution?  Be more organized? Lose weight? Find a new job? Volunteer? Save money? Travel more?

I find myself this time of year, after putting away decorations, washing extra loads of guest laundry and recovering from a lack of sleep and too many holiday treats…looking ahead to a year of opportunity. Many of us are fortunate to have a roof over our heads, enough food and clothing and a healthy family. However, 1 in 3 working families in Pierce County struggles to make ends meet let alone make New Year’s resolutions. Struggling parents mean struggling children and children who grow up in poverty are more likely to be poor as adults, while those who grow up in families that are more affluent are more likely to be affluent later in life. While even a few years in poverty can have a significant impact on a child’s economic trajectory, the risks are particularly high for those who experience many years of poverty.

Armed with this knowledge, United Way of Pierce County is working to bring health & human service providers, schools, faith-based groups, government agencies, policymakers and the private sector together for the purpose of collaborating to collect, share and analyze data and information regarding inter-generational poverty. The goal is to use this information to implement a two-generation approach designed to stabilize high-need families and, ultimately, to reduce the incidence of children in our community who remain in the cycle of poverty into adulthood.

This approach will require a commitment to serving low-income families in Pierce County in the most efficient and effective way possible, even if it means thinking outside of the box. It means moving from transactional human service providers toward becoming an integrated system of services that focus on the whole person, the whole child and the whole family/household. It will also require a central 'backbone' organization to facilitate and support these collaborations, and that is where United Way of Pierce County comes in. Two-Generation programs, like the model shown below, have incredible promise for breaking the cycle of poverty, and it is time to put this knowledge into practice to see how two can indeed, be better than one.
Model from The Aspen Institute
We look forward to collaborating with the community to help inform us as we develop our Two-Gen approach. While this work has just begun locally, the opportunity for hope and progress for Pierce County families abounds. If you would like to get involved now, many volunteer opportunities are available to help children and families, please visit our volunteer website at or email

Here’s to a happy, healthy, prosperous and hopeful 2018!

Thursday, January 18, 2018

A Day On, Instead of a Day Off

In Celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, United Way of Pierce County hosted a Day of Service to create both hygiene kits for homeless teens and literacy kits for children in our community. The event was coordinated by AmeriCorps VISTA members Michealea Lemons and Natasha Laitila. AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) members bring their passion and perseverance where the need is greatest-- to organizations that help eradicate poverty.

“Being a teenager and working hard to be successful in school is difficult enough. Imagine the additional challenges that not having a stable place to call home creates. These hygiene kits provide essential items to help these student who may be
couch surfing or are forced to live in cars or tents while trying to stay in school. And certainly literacy kits provide children from low-income families with tools to encourage reading and enhance learning skills in their home environments,” said Shawn Paton, Director, Community Investment, Engagement & Basic Needs, United Way of Pierce County.

A total of 200 hygiene kits for both male and female students, were assembled by 10 enthusiastic volunteers. Both sets of hygiene kits included granola bars, Top Ramen, deodorant, toothbrushes, toothpaste, lotion, shampoo, conditioner, socks, combs and washcloths, but the female hygiene kits also included feminine hygiene products. The kits are being distributed to various Care Closets through our partners serving Bethel, Franklin Pierce, Clover Park and Tacoma School Districts.

The 150 literacy kits were assembled by 12 volunteers and included two different Dr. Seuss favorites: Ten Apples on Top and Cooking with the Cat as well as an activity for each book, including a memory match up game and a felt fabric project focused on food groups. Another group of six volunteers created inspirational cards to include in the kits. The the literacy kits will be distributed to pre-K children through LIL Readers and to first and second graders through our READ United after-school program.

All 32 volunteers and staff were active and engaged on this “Day On.” Many volunteers appreciated the fact that United Way’s day of service was held on a weekend since they wanted to volunteer, but had to work on Monday .

A few high school students participated to complete community service hours while others were looking for a short term one-time event.

“We’re always happy to have support and we realize people have limited times and objectives, so we try to construct events based on needs and interests,” noted United Way AmeriCorps VISTA program staffer, Michealea Lemons.

Paton adds, “We are thrilled to have Michealea and Natasha here as part of our extended team at United Way. Their service improves the lives of others. They’re not just building their future careers, Michealea and Natasha are helping to build up our community while helping others engage in work that is essential to addressing the barriers of poverty.”  

One volunteer team included a mom and her two boys who worked for United Way in another state and they just moved here over the summer. “They were really excited to help out with United Way again and even stayed after to help with clean up and take down,” Lemons said.

According to Lemons, “The turnout was good and many of our volunteers were willing to participate in future days of service. It’s inspiring to have a wide range of ages as people come together to lift up others.” 

To learn more about upcoming volunteer opportunities or if your company would like to create a team building volunteer engagement, Get Connected today or contact Shawn Paton at 253-277-4263.