Friday, April 17, 2015

Surviving is the New Black?

by Sean Armentrout, Vice President of Corporate Relations

Frustration is rising. I need to contact the mortgage company because rent is due this week. But I have to wait for my spouse to come home from work with money because today is pay day. Two more minutes pass. Now I’m anxious. Come on, we have to get this done. I only have two minutes before the timer hits and the week is over. My spouse gets home but the buzzer goes off. Our make-shift family now realizes that we are too late and are going to be evicted?



This is the experience I got to participate in with over 100 others at Pacific Lutheran University with their three hour poverty simulation this past Wednesday evening. Volunteers played the roles of numerous providers from schools, the police, banks, mortgage companies, utilities, the social services administration, and a pay day loan provider to just name a few. The rest of us were placed in families with a detailed portfolio of who we are, our circumstances, job (or lack thereof details), and the expenses we are facing; all are tough choices. I need to pay the mortgage or at least part of it, but pay day isn’t until the end of the week. Do I pay for clothing or my kid’s school activity? Great, I just received a card. The dreaded card, telling me our car broke-down. Now I have to wait some more.
As we all regrouped in a circle after the exercise, it became clear. Everyone had felt pressure. Tensions had risen, and we were all frustrated. All of these feelings arose after played out only 4 weeks in poverty; each week consisting of fifteen minutes.

I remember one young college student in a black Old Navy sweatshirt  describe how her ‘family’ started off bad but ended up “OK.”  A common experience where one mistake would set you back -- whether believing you could cash a check at a bank (where you don’t have an account) or going to the wrong agency for help could set you back. But if you were able to recover just fast enough you could be “OK.”


But OK shouldn’t be enough. A common feeling as we all tried to win in this game of life- life in poverty that is. But OK was just survival. It wasn’t better opportunities; it wasn’t relief from a situation that had no end in sight- it was just being OK. OK for one month. And many of our ‘families’ didn’t end up OK like the some of the others. As I mentioned before, my family was evicted because we were late by one day.
So should OK and merely surviving be the new definition of success? Is this now acceptable? We all hear how “pink is the new black” or “40 is the new 30.” I often use the last one to feel younger as my forty second birthday just passed me by. But survival alone should never be the new OK.


It stressed to me how important a community coming together to tackle our toughest challenges is. How just providing services isn’t enough. Services many can’t reach, qualify for, or even know where exists. Not to mention they are often spread-out far away from those who need them; far from a family with one car, no car, or even reliable public transportation. It didn’t create despair, but instead, a feeling of tenacity. Perhaps even a fight inside of me. We can do better. We have to do better. Failure isn’t an option. So I look forward to the new partnerships arising whether Graduate Tacoma or United Way’s piloting Centers for strong families, where the vision, the mission, the measurements all strongly state that survival is not the new OK.

Poverty Simulation


by Mike Leonard, Resource Development Officer

Last night I had the opportunity to participate in a Poverty Simulation, hosted by Pacific Lutheran University. Roughly 70 people participated in the role play, most of them students from PLU, and a few of us from the non-profit sector.
We were randomly provided with the role of a family member. I was a grandfather of two young children, ages 7 and 9, married to Zelda. I received a monthly disability check for $500 and Zelda worked full time for minimum wage. We were guardians of the two granddaughters. Both parents are out of their lives; a mother incarcerated for drugs and no dad in the picture.


Our family was provided with a monthly budget that exceeded our take home pay. During our role play, we broke down each week into 15 minute segments. We worked frantically to get the kids to school, take the bus to pay our bills, and make tough choices on which bills we could pay.
As each 15 minute “week” passed by, the role play became more stressful. One week I forgot to buy groceries for the kids. By the third week, we ran out of money to pay for our youngest granddaughter’s medication, but we were able to keep up with mortgage and utility payments. By the end of week 4, we had $20 to our name.  Zelda missed getting to the bank on time before the end of the “month”, and we owed money for food, phone, clothing and an old debt to the bank. Challenging and stressful to say the least.


After the role play, participants broke into small groups to share thoughts and emotions. We then gathered into a large circle to digest what we experienced. Each participant was asked to share one take-away with the person sitting next to them. For me, it was the realization that 70 individuals will wake up today with a better appreciation of the struggles that so many families face every day.  And some may even choose to make a difference.
United Way of Pierce County invests in children and their families. By focusing on programs that help young children and their families, we can remove the barriers preventing them from breaking the cycle of poverty. Through strong families and successful kids, we can create a thriving and connected community.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Raise Your Voice for Working Families on EITC Awareness Day

What would you do if you knew there was a proven solution that lifts millions of children and working families out of poverty each year… a tool that, at the same time, also improves child health and academic achievement, enables financial stability for hard-working families, and pumps billions of dollars back into local communities around the country?

You’d probably want to talk about it. You’d probably want as many of your friends, family and community to know about this amazing resource. 

That’s exactly why United Way, our community partners, and thousands of volunteers each year take action to connect millions of people to the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). In fact, just last tax season, United Way of Pierce County, through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, helped connect local people to $428 million in tax refunds – money coming right back into our community. And that’s why we advocate to strengthen and expand the EITC for working families and individuals. 

Simply put, the Earned Income Tax Credit helps lower-wage working families keep more of what they earn.  Research finds that the EITC encourages work, reduces poverty and leads to long-term gains in child health and academic success. Together with the Child Tax Credit (CTC), another essential credit that helps offset the cost of raising children, the credits lifted more than 9 million people – 5 million of them children -- out of poverty in 2013. The credits also help 22 million lower-income Americans have further financial stability.

Knowing this, what would you do if you realized that some key features of the EITC and CTC are set to expire soon, and that, without people like you taking action, thousands of our community members could fall back into poverty?

We hope you’d take action.

There are three important ways you can take action this EITC Awareness Day – January 30, 2015.

1)  Advocate: Send a message toyour Members of Congress letting them know how important the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit are in our community.  It’s easy! Simply read the letter (personalize it if you wish), enter your information, and press send.  That’s it!

2)  Spread the word: Tell your friends and family about the success of the EITC & Child Tax Credit.  Tweet it, post it, put a sign in your yard, a sticker on your car, or a tattoo on your arm. Why not be creative? The tax credits could mean hundreds or thousands of dollars in the pockets of people you care about. Use #EITC, #EITCDay, and #LIVEUNITED.

3)  Connect people to the credits through free online tax preparation at MyFreeTaxes.com. Share the link and individuals or families earning $60,000 or less in 2014 can file their state and local taxes for free online.  Those who may want free in-person assistance can call 2-1-1 to find their nearest Volunteer Income Tax Assistance site.


Thanks for taking action – because change doesn’t happen without you. 

Sunday, December 28, 2014

A Lifeline

by Dona Ponepinto, President & CEO

As the seasons change, the colder weather starts to set in. The recent nights with lows in the 20s make a person want to stay under a blanket and turn up the heat. Imagine how you would feel if your home didn't have heat. Or even worse, if you didn't have a home. Would you know where to turn?

There is a place you can call, South Sound 2-1-1. Help starts here. By simply dialing 2-1-1, just like you would 9-1-1, you can get connected to a real person. Someone who not only knows about the resources available in Pierce County to help you get heat or find a warm place to sleep but someone who also knows how desperate you might feel.

With empathy and knowledge, South Sound 2-1-1 provides a lifeline. In 2013, it was a lifeline for over 83,000 people. Specialists helped people find a ride to their doctor’s appointment. They helped them find an agency that could provide services for their developmentally delayed child. They were there simply to listen.

When a resource was unavailable, South Sound 2-1-1 looked for other areas where a caller could get help. In some cases, connecting them to food gave the caller the funds they needed to pay the electric bill or fill the gas tank.

And at South Sound 2-1-1, we don’t just look for a quick fix. We want to help people get on their feet but we also want them to stay on their feet. By checking the caller’s eligibility for the Basic Food program or Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), we can help them find stability.


For those who have called, South Sound 2-1-1 provided answers they couldn't find on their own. We want South Sound 2-1-1 to be available for all those in need and for a long time to come. We can’t do it alone. Please answer the call to support 2-1-1 by donating today.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

I Love Working at South Sound 2-1-1

by Sarah Teague, South Sound 2-1-1 Resource Specialist

I can honestly say that I love my job. I’m a call and resource specialist at South Sound 2-1-1, which means I answer the phone when someone calls needing help, and works with the community to list the resources that are there to help. I like taking calls here because it connects me with my community in a way that I had never connected before.

  •      I have helped callers stay in housing, or found housing because they called 2-1-1.
  •      I have helped callers access a doctor, or insurance or dental care because they called 2-1-1.
To me, that’s amazing. And I am lucky, because not only do I have the ability to search our resources to find what can help a caller, I also to get to add the information about new programs, or make changes to the programs we have.

I have learned so much about what our community needs and the barriers we face. And how there are so many caring and committed groups working to help.

I collect information about community organizations and programs. Pester them with questions to help our callers be prepared (Oh, you provide this service too, fantastic! Now, should someone call to set up an appointment or just walk-in? What documentation should they bring?) And I am very grateful to those who work with me to keep the information as accurate as possible.

After I receive the information and, like any Librarian-at-Heart, I have to categorize it in a way that other people can find that information. Using the AIRS Taxonomy (the Dewey Decimal system of social services) every program is categorized so the Information & Referral Specialists can find it quickly.

Within seconds, we can pull up a list of food pantries across the county. Within minutes we can find information on resources available to help with multiple needs, or if there are no resources, we can try to troubleshoot alternatives and work-arounds.

And I am lucky to work with other people who are caring, and committed to our community. I am constantly moved by how much they give of themselves.

I think that’s why I have stuck around for eight years. I have really enjoyed watching the call center grow and seeing how we can really be the “First Call for Help.” I am looking forward to see how we can change and grow to serve our community better.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Giving Jamie’s Family a Second Chance

by Kathryn McCarthy, Director of Donor Relations

Last December was a really scary time for Jamie, her husband and their two-year old daughter. In August, her husband had been laid off and by the time December came, they were really behind financially, just as their electricity bill was growing. Unable to pay their bills, they finally lost power in December. Losing power meant more than just heat, it meant no way to cook, no refrigerator and after 4:30 p.m. in winter no light.

If you ask Jamie about that time, she will tell you “We bundled up, lit candles and we tried to be troopers, but it was scary. We really did not know what we were going to do.”  The change and the stress had an immediate effect on their two-year old. Normally happy and easy going, her temperament changed over those long days and nights.

The family knew they needed to do something, but they really did not know where to turn. Finally, Jamie came across a flyer for South Sound 2-1-1.  At first, she was hesitant to call. She wasn't looking for a handout, but her family was in trouble.  

“We’re proud people; I was embarrassed to ask for help. And I didn't really think it could be that easy. That I could really dial three numbers and someone would help me.  But I called and a real person answered. She listened to my problem and she found my family help.”  Jamie was guided to Metropolitan Development Council (MDC) and within a day her power was restored.

Today, Jamie and her family are getting back on their feet. Jamie said, “I’m so grateful to 2-1-1. We’re getting our finances back on track and that would not have been possible without 2-1-1. I tell everyone about 2-1-1, it changed my life. They gave my family a second chance.”

Every day hundreds of people in our community call South Sound 2-1-1 distressed, just like Jamie. Our call specialists answer the phone with compassion and professionalism.  It’s so much more than a data base. Call specialists can problem solve and help callers find solutions they might not be aware existed, and they might be the only caring and compassionate voice someone hears.


If you or someone you know needs help, tell them to call 2-1-1. It might be the second chance they need.