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.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

American Graduate Day

by Nalani Linder, Community Impact Manager - Early Childhood Development 

Did you know that our local public television station, KBTC, does a lot more for children than just air great programming like Sesame Street and Clifford the Big Red Dog? For years, KBTC has been active in the greater Tacoma/Pierce County community offering outreach and innovative hands-on programming, particularly for children in Tacoma’s Eastside and Hilltop communities. 

United Way of Pierce County congratulates KBTC on their award of the American Graduate grant, part of a national campaign to promote awareness and raise high school graduation rates across the country.  While many of the other American Graduate sites focused on interventions to support older students (such as mentoring, dropout prevention and/or college and career readiness programs), KBTC and its partners—United Way of Pierce County, First 5 FUNdamentals and the Foundation for Tacoma Students) chose to focus on high quality early learning experiences and its strong connection to later success in school and life. 

We are fortunate that public television is so committed to success of our community’s children.  Last month, KBTC hosted ‘American Graduate Day’, a television broadcast which featured inspiring stories from around the nation as well as local interviews with several leaders in education and the community. Viewers learned about some diverse ways that kindergarten readiness is being supported within Pierce County. Examples included: 

  • Columbia Bank- a company that ‘walks the talk’ of investing in the community through their volunteerism and donations to United Way and early learning; 
  • Reach Out and Read, an innovative program through pediatricians’ offices that provides a free book at every well-child visit and encourages parents to read to their children; and 
  • Sumner School District, where kindergarten teachers, child care providers and parents work together to help children be as successful as possible as they start school. 

If you missed the program, you can see highlights here.  

Want to help spread the word about the importance of early learning and what’s happening locally? Share information about American Graduate with your friends by sending them this link:

Monday, September 29, 2014

SNAP Challenge: Can you live on $4.50 a day?

by Lindsey Burks, Marketing Associate

Feeding America asked people across the nation one question – can you eat on just $4.50 a day?

Over 47 million Americans face this difficult task every day because they rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly food stamps) to get enough to eat. So many of us have grown accustomed to morning Starbucks coffee and eating dinner out, and we don’t often take the time to reflect on the fact that an enormous number of people are struggling to even get enough food on the table.

To encourage the public to get a sense of what life is like for millions of low-income Americans facing hunger, Feeding America devised the SNAP Challenge. By accepting this challenge, participants commit to eating on a limited food budget – $4.50 a day, or just $1.50 per meal.

Pete, our resident vegetarian and United Way CFO, took on the SNAP Challenge and conquered it. However, his defeat didn't leave him feeling great – instead he emerged with a new found understanding of just how difficult it is for an individual, let alone a family, to eat healthy on that tight of a budget. Let’s walk through his experience:

His first step – shopping! Following the rules of the challenge, Pete bypassed membership stores, such as Costco, and headed straight to Safeway and Big Lots. At Safeway, Pete focused on finding his breakfast and lunch foods for the entire week. At the end of his trip, his cart was filled with only 4 items: a box of oatmeal, a loaf of store-brand bread, a jar of peanut butter and a jar of grape jelly. This weeks’ worth of breakfast and lunch items cost a total of $8.27. Although Pete spent so little of his budget and managed to buy the bulk of the food he would need for the week, the foods he purchased had minimal nutritional value.

Dinner options were next on Pete’s list. As a vegetarian, he did not need to worry about spending the lion share of his budget on meat, which is often the biggest expense on the grocery list. Instead he headed straight to Big Lots where he knew he could count on finding canned goods cheap. At $1.00 per can, Pete grabbed assorted beans and mixed vegetables.

Throughout the week, Pete began to appreciate the luxuries he frequently enjoys; missing his family’s weekly pizza night was the roughest. Aside from missing out on luxuries, he realized the toll high-sodium and high-sugar canned foods can take. Pete exclaimed, “You can get by for a week and have it not be very disruptive but if you had to eat this way for even a month, let alone if it was your lifestyle, you would begin to feel the effects.”

Working in the nonprofit industry, Pete already had a strong appreciation for the services provided by food banks but during the SNAP challenge, he realized even more the vitality of those services. The food that SNAP participants can afford are typically not foods with nutritional value, leading to medical issues such as diabetes and high blood pressure, and more expensive issues in the long run. We have an obligation – we must provide better locally and ensure that our food banks are well stocked so that we can eliminate hunger in our community.

Although Hunger Action Month is coming to an end, there is so much you can continue to do to raise awareness and fight hunger. Spread the word about our South Sound 211 Center; by simply dialing 2-1-1, people can be connected to food banks or apply for the basic food assistance program. Don’t need help but want to lend your hand? Check out our volunteer center for ways to get involved at your local food bank:

Friday, September 26, 2014

Attendance: Families Make the Difference

by Nola Renz, Community Impact Manager for Early Grade Excellence

As a parent you fundamentally shape whether children develop a habit of attendance and have the resources they need to get to school every day. Parents can deliver the message to their children and to other parents that missing more than 18 days of an 180-day school year can put students at academic risk. So what are things you can do to promote a habit of attendance?

Avoid extended vacations that require your children to miss school. Try to line up vacations with the school’s schedule. The same goes for doctor’s appointments.

Set a regular bedtime and morning routine. Make sure children get 9-11 hours of sleep. Make sure that when the lights go out, so do the cell phones, video games and computers.

·       Set up homework routines. Make sure the child has the time and space to complete their homework. Eliminate distractions as much as possible and help to keep them focused.

·       Get to know the teachers and administrators. Make sure you introduce your child to teachers before school starts and keep in touch with the teachers.

·       Set an example for your child. Show him or her that attendance matters to you and that you won’t allow an absence unless someone is truly sick. Don’t ask older children to help with daycare and household errands that would keep them from school.

·       Remember, you can turn to the school for help. Many schools offer a variety of services and supports for the whole family. 

      Thank you for making a difference for your children by having them in school every day.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Tackling Child Hunger One Power Pack at Time

On a national scale, 16.2 million kids in America struggle with hunger. In Washington State, more than 440,000 children live in homes with not enough food on the table. In Pierce County alone, 110,000 people suffer from hunger, with 39% percent of these individuals being children (Northwest Harvest, 2013).  Every day, both on a national scale and in our very own neighborhoods, children are affected by hunger and are not able to get the proper nutrition they need to focus to the best of their ability in school.

According to Hunger in our Schools, there are three common side effects seen in the classroom from children who suffer from hunger. An inability to concentrate, poor academic performance, and suffering through headaches and stomach aches are all unfortunate consequences displayed in children who have not been properly fed. Not only does hunger affects a child’s ability to focus, it also is more likely that these same children will “ behind in their academic development compared to other children which ultimately makes it more difficult for them to reach the same level of development as their fellow food secure peers” (Feeding America, 2014).While three out of four teachers (77%) agree that addressing childhood hunger must be a national priority, there are steps that can be taken now in order to help put an end to this child hunger.

Because United Way of Pierce County realizes that a school cafeteria may be the only way some children receive nutritious food in their day, they have decided to partner with St. Leo’s Food Connection to create a program called Power Pack. This project serves to help bridge the gap on weekends by providing children in the free and reduced lunch program with six kid-friendly meals comprised of fresh fruits and vegetables. Initially, the program was set to serve 470 children in the Tacoma School District, but through a collaborative effort, United Way has helped extend the program to 590 students, and now include the Clover Park School District as well.

Interested in getting involved? Learn how you can help make an impact through either holding a Power Pack food drive, volunteering to build or deliver packs, or even making a donation to purchase food. Together, we can fight hunger and make a difference in a child’s ability to learn in a classroom.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

What I Didn't Know as the Parent of a Young Student

by: Nola Renz, Community Impact Manager for Early Grade Excellence

When I was the parent of a young student I didn't
know or understand the importance of attendance and that consistent attendance, starting in the early grades and continuing on through high school, really does matter.

I didn't know that...
My child could suffer academically if they missed 10%, or just 18 school days each year. Even in Kindergarten, First and Second grade this impacts their ability to learn.

I didn't know that...
·        It doesn't matter whether the absences are excused or unexcused. They all represent lost time in the classroom and lost opportunities to learn.

I didn't know that...
·        Attendance matters as early as Kindergarten. Studies show many children who miss too many days of Kindergarten and First Grade struggle academically in later years.

I didn't know that...
·        Preschool is a great time to start building the habit of good attendance. Studies show that poor attendance in preschool can predict absenteeism in later grades.

I didn't know that...
·        By Middle and High School, chronic absence is a leading sign that a student will drop out.

I didn't know that...
·        Too many absent students can affect the whole classroom, slowing down instruction and learning.

Now I want to make sure that parents of young children understand how important attendance is and how much it can affect their child’s future. Let’s all work together to share this message. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

We Have To Start Young

by: Nola Renz, Community Impact Manager - Early Grade Success

Research has shown that the early years in a child’s life, when the brain is forming, represent a critically important window of opportunity to develop a child’s full potential and shape key academic, social and cognitive skills that determine a child’s success in school and life.

Even at the start of Kindergarten, children from low-income families lag academically behind peers from higher-income families on key indicators because of a lack of access to early learning experiences.

We know that high-quality early learning opportunities are a sound investment that reduces the need for other services that may include remedial education and grade repetition. Improving access to these opportunities would “change the story” for our children.

Building a habit of regular attendance, starting with preschoolers, ensures children fully benefit from high quality learning experiences and gain skills that will serve them well in school. 

Summer is an important time for preparing children and their families to start school, ready to learn and ready to thrive. 

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Why Third Grade Reading Ability Matters

by Nola Renz, Community Impact Manager - Early Grade Excellence

“The fact is that the low-income fourth graders who cannot meet the proficient level in reading today are all too likely to become our nation’s lowest-income, least skilled, least productive, and most costly citizens of tomorrow. Simply put we are cementing educational failure and poverty into the next generation.”

This is a startling statement from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, who continues to do extensive research on the WHY behind the importance of third grade reading ability. Clearly, we have to do something different – something in addition to what is happening at our schools, in our homes, and in our communities.  That is exactly what our Impact Team here at United Way, focused on Early Grade Excellence, is working toward. We know that children learn to read from kindergarten until third grade, and from third grade on they read to learn.

In collaboration with Tacoma Campaign for Grade Level Reading, United Way of Pierce County is bringing youth literacy programs, youth recreational programs, the Tacoma Public Library, Child Care Aware, First 5 Fundamentals and Metro Parks to focus on identifying and addressing the barriers to children’s ability to read. Through this partnership we are creating an aligned, integrated, and coordinated pathway from birth through third grade for children so that they may be prepared for life and set up for success.
While we are fiercely committed to improving the education and lives of young children in Pierce County, this work begins and ends with parents and their children. Here’s how you can be a part of our education revolution:
  • Read and talk with your child daily - ensure they are cognitively ready for kindergarten.
  • Create opportunities for your child to build their reading skills - utilize volunteer reading tutors!
  • Develop a "culture" of school attendance - chronic absence, even among young children, is a clear predictor of drop out.
  • Encourage reading and learning games at home during the summer months - avoid the dreaded "summer slide" so your child does not lose their reading ability and fall behind before the new school year begins.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Get Books in Their Hands

by Nola Renz, Community Impact Manager - Early Grade Excellence

The startling reality is that children from low-income households do not read because they do not have books in their homes or easy access to books in their communities.  For many parents this is difficult to imagine, we buy books for our children, take them to the library to check out books, and read to and with our children regularly.  Yet, there are a huge number of children in our communities who don’t have books in their homes at all. 

Research has shown that “simply providing children from low-income families with self-selected books for summer reading eliminated summer reading loss and spurred reading gains comparable to those experienced by middle class children.” (Allington, McGill-Franzen Camilli, et al., 2010)

This study indicates that by distributing self-selected books to children for summer reading improved reading achievement as much as attending summer school.  By providing the children with books that they want to read every summer the odds drastically improve the likelihood that these children will end the summer reading at grade level.  The reports indicate that the younger children benefit the most from the summer book distribution programs.  The children are excited to read these books because they have selected them. 

Summer reading programs most likely to stop the summer learning loss focus on some key aspects:
  • They focus on Kindergarten and First Graders. 
  • Encourage self- selection of books. 
  • Engage the children for at least three consecutive summers. 
  • Distribute 12-15 books per summer for children in Kindergarten through fourth Grade.
Together we could make this happen. We could begin leveling the playing field with books – the building blocks of the future.

Find out more about donating books through United Way's Launch Into Literacy program at

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Let’s Make Every Word Count….

by Nola Renz, Community Impact Manager - Early Grade Excellence

Children from low-income families tend to lose more than two months of grade-level equivalency in reading during the summer, despite the fact that their peers from middle-class families make slight gains.  Yet, when the children in our community read and engage in literacy activities during the summer, they build critically important literacy skills and can avoid losing knowledge gained throughout the school year.

Summer provides an ideal time to expose children to books and other activities that interest them, help strengthen their literacy skills and avoid the risks of summer reading loss. Summer literacy activities should include even the youngest learners. Families can promote learning through fun activities, like reading books together, going to the library and local museums and cultural events, or even reading street signs and billboards. Reading at home can have a big impact on reducing summer learning loss when paired with the right supports, including access to a variety of books that match the children’s interests and reading level, and having adults ask questions about the book that was read to help the child remember different aspects. 

Have a reading picnic with your child. Take a blanket, a couple of books your child enjoys and a special treat (sliced apples for instance) out to your yard or to a local park. Spread the blanket out and sit down with your child on the blanket.  Select one of the books to read. Talk about the book, look at the picture on the cover and talk about what you think the story might be about based on the picture you see. Get comfortable and begin reading with or to your child.  Stop frequently to ask them what they think about the story so far, or what they think might happen next. When you finish the book ask some questions about the story to help the child remember what you just read together.  Then ask them if the book matched the picture on the cover or what they thought the book would be about.  Depending on the age of the child they may want to read it again. Have fun with the book, perhaps the child can act out a portion of the story.  Helping your child(ren) enjoy and have fun with reading is a gift that will support their growth and development in a lasting way. Be intentional as you integrate daily reading and talking with your child into summer experiences to create a language-rich environment for children throughout our communities.  

Thursday, June 12, 2014

What is the Summer Slide?

by Nola Renz, Community Impact Manager - Early Grade Excellence

When you hear these words what do you think of?  Your mind probably slips right over to the slide in the local swimming pool or at the local park or perhaps the slide at the playground at your child’s elementary school.  Unfortunately, that’s not what we are referring to. The “Summer Slide” we are referring to is what happens when kids stop learning over the summer, which leads to a significant loss in reading and math skills. And what we see is that while all children can be impacted, the highest impact is on the children from low-income households who have little or no access to books or summer learning programs. 

Imagine two students. Both enter the summer break with nine months of learning under their belts. While one has books at home, makes trips to the library and participates in summer programs, the other does not. There are no books at home and no resources to get them to the library or pay for summer programs. The child who reads during the summer and goes to summer programs is more likely to retain what they've learned during the school year, and even make gains over the summer months. Meanwhile, the child who doesn't have access to books or other learning opportunities can lose an average of more than two months in reading achievement in the summer.

What can we do?

The most important thing is to make sure that kids are reading. Many low-income families don’t have books at home. Through United Way of Pierce County’s Launch Into Literacy program, we are collecting books for children who don’t have any. A gift of just $3 can provide a book for a child.

For children that have access to books, start by making sure the books are at their reading level and ask them questions about what they are reading.  To make sure the book is at an appropriate level  for your child use the five finger rule. Have the child read 100 words from a book and raise one finger for each word that is too difficult to figure out. If the child has more than five fingers up, the book is probably too hard for them.  You want the reading to be challenging but not frustrating for your child.

The next thing is to talk with your child about what they are reading and ask questions about the story; this helps them develop their comprehension or understanding of what they are reading and is one of the most powerful things to help improve the child’s reading ability.

Another great tool for parents is to do a family project. This might be having a “family store” where kids buy and sell things in the family with some type of currency exchange (monopoly money can be used, or pennies, or create your own money). This creates hands-on learning opportunities at home. 

One of the most important things you can do as a parent is to learn with your child. You don’t have to be an expert at anything, simply show your child that you are interested and want to learn and then push forward to learn things with them.  Go to the library together, pick out books and let your child see you reading also. When you decide to work together to learn something be excited about both of your progress and find fun ways to celebrate and share what you have learned.  

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Truth About Water Fluoridation

by Timm Dowling, Resource Development Executive

When you think of reasons kids miss school, what do you think of?

Influenza? Transportation? Substance abuse? Apathy?
What about dental health?
That’s right; tooth decay is a leading cause of absenteeism. Children with dental disease miss more school days than other children, disrupting their educational and social experiences. This leads to developmental delays, increasing the educational gap that we are fighting so hard to bridge. If children don’t show up for school regularly, they miss out on fundamental reading and math skills and the chance to build a habit of good attendance that will carry them into college and careers. Children who start behind often stay behind, continuing the cycle of poverty.
Those cheesy videos about fighting plaque weren’t just a marketing ploy. Cavities are detrimental to our overall health, especially for children. The mouth is the portal for nutrients to our bodies and without a healthy mouth; you won’t have a healthy body. Not only is it virtually impossible to eat when you have poor oral hygiene (tooth decay, gum disease, oral sores, etc.) but it distracts from all other aspects of your life. When a young child’s front teeth are damaged or missing, they often can’t form words correctly, resulting in speech issues, and tend to embrace an anti-social demeanor.
According to the Washington Dental Service Foundation, nearly 40 percent of children start kindergarten with tooth decay; almost 15 percent have rampant decay (seven or more decayed/filled teeth). Nearly six out of 10 third grade children have tooth decay in permanent teeth.
So how do we ensure most of us can have a healthy smile and optimal oral health? One proven way that has been used safely in the United States for nearly 70 years is community water fluoridation. Pierce County residents have been safely enjoying its use since the late 1950s, though not everyone is receiving it.
“Nearly 65 percent of Washington State residents improve their dental health, and overall health, by drinking fluoridated water. However, in Pierce County that number is less than half. There is obviously room for improvement. For those who want to improve the health of Pierce County residents, community water fluoridation is of proven value,” says Laura Smith, President and CEO of the Washington Dental Service Foundation.
Water Fluoridation is one of the safest and most cost efficient community health initiatives in the country. It is one of the most thoroughly studied subjects, and the substantial scientific evidence shows it is safe and effective.
In addition to the health benefits, water fluoridation is extremely cost effective. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention commissioned a study which found that every $1 invested in fluoridation saves $38 by reducing the need for dental fillings, crowns, or other treatments. This holds true for communities of over 20,000 people, but even smaller towns often find the savings a great value.
Community anxiety around water fluoridation stems from misinformation. This is similar to the issue of vaccinations. The public simply isn’t properly informed about the matter and it’s much easier to digest an emotional comment on Facebook than several pages of a scientific study. But the facts are out there and those who are properly educated on the matter understand the importance and benefit of community water fluoridation.
To connect with low cost dental resources, give our South Sound 211 office a call or find more referral information here:

Friday, May 23, 2014

2014 Community Celebration: A Recap

by Mike Leonard, Campaign Relationship Manager

More than 400 friends and supporters of United Way of Pierce County attended the 2014 Community Celebrations on May 19th in beautiful downtown Tacoma. The Tacoma Convention Center was the perfect venue for this annual event, radiating the reception area with the glowing afternoon sun.

Outgoing Campaign Chair, Deb Young, HR Director from the City of Lakewood, welcomed guests and thanked the sponsors for making the evening possible.  With the financial support of The Boeing Company, Union Bank and Staging Techniques, 100 percent of the events costs were covered.

Young introduced new United Way of Pierce County President/CEO, Dona Ponepinto, who shared her story about United Way being deeply rooted in her family, from her dad’s annual pledge to her mom’s volunteer work, and finally her own 27 year career with United Way. Ponepinto shared her passion for United Way, and highlights of the United Way strategic plan. She thanked the corporate partners and employee donors, and closed with the quote, “Living United, we don’t do any of the work alone.”

Wayne Larkin, President and CEO of True Blue, spoke on behalf of 2013 Campaign Chair, Steve Cooper. Larkin spoke of the success of several corporate campaigns in 2013, and highlighted some of the campaign’s successes.  He explained how dollars raised through the company campaign stabilize families in Pierce County by connecting those in need with vital resources, helping families get out of crisis situations. Some of the successful campaigns that were highlighted include Korum Automotive Group, Coordinated Care, GEO Engineers, Nordstrom, Franciscan Health Care and TrueBlue. Larkin also had the pleasure of recognizing the City of Tacoma as the 2013 Campaign of the Year.

Dianna Kielian, Senior VP of Mission for Franciscan Health System, and incoming campaign chair for UWPC told a touching story about her childhood and how United Way helped her family during a time of crisis. “Not enough” her Dad would say as they drove by the Detroit Buick plant United Way Thermometer. You see, her dad had recently been laid off from the Buick Company, but was still committed to making his annual donation to United Way. He asked each of his children to dig through their piggy banks several times to help with the family’s United Way pledge knowing that United Way was there to support the family during that difficult 5 month period of unemployment. The gift of giving continues with Dianna to this day.

New United Way Board Chair Jamey McCormick spoke from the heart about how life has changed since the birth of his second daughter just 4 months ago. He spoke about starting points, and how all children starting at the same point in life, and how they grow is determined by family support. McCormick spoke about the importance of talking to children. He said that the success of his daughter starts at day one, and that every time he talks to her, he is helping her develop. He spoke of United Way’s efforts to focus on early learning, early grade excellence and strengthening families. McCormick also spoke about the need to break down barriers that families and children face every day in our community, and empower them to succeed.

Dona Ponepinto closed the celebration and spoke of how our partnerships with First 5 Fundamentals, Tacoma Children’s Museum, Mary Bridge, Lindquist Dental and Pierce County Libraries is shaping the way we care for and prepare our youngest citizens for school and life. Ponepinto said the she believes that investing in children will change their story to one of accomplishments and not challenges. She spoke of the barriers that stand in the way of families and children, and how we can work together as a community to find solutions to those barriers; “We can create lasting change by removing barriers so that families can be empowered to make lasting change.” Ponepinto closed with quote from one of her favorite children’s books, Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends.  “Listen to the mustn’ts, child. Listen to the don’ts. Listen to the shouldn’ts, the impossibles, the won’ts. Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me. Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.”

Sunday, May 11, 2014

J.R.R. Tolkien Taught Me About Motherhood

by Patricia Hart, Campaign Account Manager

I didn’t read to my sons in order to increase their reading scores, academic advancement or economic success. I read to open vistas of imagination and to keep, even briefly, cares at bay. Crack open a book and anything can happen.

As a single mother with three very active little boys, a quiet hour every evening— all wrangling suspended, bathed, teeth brushed, Band-Aids refreshed— restored the sometimes fraying bonds between brothers… and me. During that brief daily interlude it was just us—off on a literary adventure together.

I keenly remember reading, looking down at the whorls and cowlicks of their damp hair and marveling at their lengthening limbs. Before long they were old enough to comprehend the complexity of a book like the Fellowship of the Ring; they seemed so big, but not so big that we weren’t all stunned and in tears when Gandalf fell to the Balrog on the bridge of Moria. How could the band survive without Gandalf’s wisdom? How could the boys manage without me? What was Tolkien thinking?!

We read more than a hundred books together. The boys enlisted the aid of delighted school librarians in ferreting out Newberry winners, and we pored over Robinson Crusoe’s diaries. Even though we rationed every ounce that went into our packs when we hiked, the heft of the current book was exempt. The power of the narrative carried its own weight. During each reading with my boys, I never attempted to define or question or teach or moralize, even though I was tempted at times. It may have been a simpler time, although motherhood is always fraught with anxieties and concerns. I didn’t feel the same pressure to produce results in such a high-stakes testing environment. 

We somehow successfully managed the chasm of adolescence, with or without Gandalf. As a single mother, I had doubts and fears, yet while reading to my boys those melted away; I knew that our time together lost in the magical world of Tolkien was what they needed to grow into well-rounded individuals. United Way of Pierce County is working to bring that kind of growth to all children in our community, through our Launch into Literacy program and our strong focus on early childhood development and early grade excellence. You have the chance to enhance a child’s life through books and play by volunteering – reading, tutoring, you name it.

Learn more here:

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A Lesson in Budgeting

by Cari Schindler, Marketing Associate

The weirdest day of my life was the day I graduated from college. The long, arduous, thrilling journey all came to culminate in one short ceremony. Afterwards, when my family was on their way back home and my cap and gown were tossed onto my bed, I stood in my room with only one thought: now what?

Life after college can be an overwhelming time of transitions, but one of the most daunting aspects has to be personal finances - or lack thereof. How do I pay for rent, groceries, and coffee without the aid of student loans? Speaking of student loans, how do I pay off a large sum of money when I have little to no income? In short, I was financially illiterate. Meaning I needed to learn how to earn, budget, and save. This was ten months ago, and I've by no means figured it all out, but since this is Financial Literacy Month I thought I’d share with you what I’ve learned along the way.

Earn it: You can’t learn to manage your money if you don’t have any. Finding a job in our current market can be a challenge, but it’s not impossible. I walked around my neighborhood until I found someone who was hiring. I got a part-time, minimum wage job at a coffee and yogurt shop. Maybe it wasn't what I went to school for, but we all have to start somewhere. Other great options for finding work are job fairs and staffing agencies (which is how I got hired at United Way).

Budget it: Or, find a website that does the work for you. I personally bank with Harborstone Credit Union and their website has all kinds of features to help you set a budget and stick to it, including an option to receive a text whenever you're approaching your budget limit. See what resources your financial institution offers, or try It’s a free website that works with any bank or credit union, and has all the bells and whistles to help keep you on track.

Know your challenges: Everyone has unique financial challenges that can make saving and budgeting tricky. Identify your personal challenges and deal with them specifically. If you’re a recent graduate like me, your challenge is likely called “student loans”. I’ve picked up a couple of tips for that too:

Know your loans: Know them like the back of your hand or the front of your face or whatever part of your body makes this metaphor work for you. When are you scheduled to start repaying? What will your monthly payments be? Who is your servicer? If you're not sure about any of this, there's a handy little thing called the National Student Loan Data System where you can find out. You may be able to defer your loans. Figure out what you're able to pay every month and make arrangements.

Consolidate: If you have private loans, you can go through a bank such as Wells Fargo. If your loans are federal, you can do it right from the Federal Student Aid website. While you're there, you can also set up automatic bill pay. They'll send you an email every month before the money comes out, so you can make sure you're not going to overdraw your account.

Be realistic: This goes for any financial challenge. It’s good to have ambitious goals, like paying off your student loans in two years, but if you're unemployed, eating ramen and trying to sneak onto the bus in a horse costume, it might be time to set smaller steps. This is okay, we all encounter roadblocks. But with hard work, planning, and a little bit of financial know-how, we can all reach our goals.

What are your financial challenges? What about challenges that you’ve overcome? What tips do you have? No matter where we’re at in life, we all have something to learn from each other. Leave a comment and share your story!

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Term that Makes You Squirm

by Tammy Brown, Community Impact Manager – Strengthening Families
Hearing the term financial literacy can make even the most competent person squirm, yet financial literacy is really quite simple – manage your money wisely.  Earn it, save it, grow it, budget it and share it. However, financial literacy is far more than managing your money from day-to-day or month-to-month, it requires a working knowledge and understanding of how money works (e.g. the benefit of having a checking account as opposed to using predatory lending services like check cashing services or quick loans).
Unfortunately, many people are not financially literate and only know how to manage their income from paycheck to paycheck because they are not taught financial principles in school or in the home. Perhaps this is why in 2004, the U.S. Senate passed Resolution 316 to officially recognize April as National Financial Literacy Month.
It has now been 10 years since the resolution was passed, yet this is the first time I have heard of April being National Financial Literacy Month. We must go beyond designating a month to bring awareness to the need for financial literacy in our nation and begin implementing policies to ensure the principles of financial literacy are taught in grades K-12, as well as in post-secondary education.  We must value financial literacy just as much as literacy because being illiterate, in any way, hurts us all.

For tips that will improve your financial literacy, and help you save a pretty penny, visit the Strengthening Families page on our website:

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

My Gift to Families: Peace of Mind

by Kelvin Ceasar, Project Manager - United for Military Families
Give. Advocate. Volunteer. Here in the United Way office, those words are etched in our brains. Today, I want to focus in on the third word in that trifecta – volunteer.  I want to share some recollections from a special volunteer experience I had.  A couple of years ago I spent time during the winter and early spring training as a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) volunteer based out of South Sound Outreach Services.  Across the country each year, thousands of people are trained by the IRS in tax preparation.  The training covers tax filing for simple 1040 EZs and goes up to some fairly complex tax situations involving the dredged  “long form”— pretty scary stuff.  But the training is great and you are allowed to progress as far up the mountain as you desire.  I made it about half way.  It was a thoroughly enjoyable and mentally challenging experience.  In particular what made the experience so special for me and what motivates me to encourage you to take on this opportunity as well is the earned income tax credit (EITC among us tax gurus).  No I didn't earn a tax credit for volunteering (I wish!) but I was able to ensure that several single moms and hardworking couples did.

The “working poor” is routinely talked about in the circles I operate in, yet in a lot of instances it can seem like an abstract.  We know the statistics and we know, in the grander scheme, what United Way dollars are invested in but we don’t often get a chance to hear from specific individuals who have been lifted through our support. During my cycle as a VITA volunteer I met many people who were hard workers, yet struggling. They would tell me their stories as I worked through their taxes; stories about working multiple jobs or working extra-long hours at a job but still not being able to quite make ends meet.  It felt really good to spend an hour with a young couple and at the end to be able to tell them that in a few weeks they would have the money they needed to finally get the car fixed. That meant they wouldn't have to take the bus anymore, saving them an extra two hours every day commuting to and from work— two hours that they could now spend with their kids. Another precious memory is of an elderly woman who had recently lost her husband, and for the first time had to prepare a tax return on her own.  To be able to reassure her that I would take care of it and that she would be getting money back to help her get caught up on bills was something I will never forget.

All in all it wasn't a bad way to spend some of those cold, wet winter days we have here. I sincerely encourage you to take a few moments to research the VITA program. It’s a great opportunity, with a fascinating origin, for those looking to give back. Then I want you to seriously consider signing on as VITA volunteer next winter; you won’t regret it.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

It's All About the Kids

by Nalani Linder, Community Impact Manager - Early Childhood Development

You know you work with children when…
…you’re telling children in the grocery store to use their ‘inside voices’.
…you come home with marker, paint and dried glue on your hands or clothes or hair—every day!
…the soundtrack of songs that get stuck in your head are about the alphabet, clean up time or baby beluga whales.
Laughter and knowing nods filled the community center meeting hall last month, as kindergarten teachers, preschool teachers and child care providers came together to talk about what they have in common as teachers and caregivers of young children. Such a scene was repeated a total of five times over the last two months, hosted by United Way of Pierce County, First 5 FUNdamentals, Graduate Tacoma, the Tacoma School District and Child Care Aware of Tacoma-Pierce County. These evening events were called “Building Connections: It’s All About the Kids” and conversations were indeed on the kids—specifically, how the adults could work better together to ensure successful transitions to kindergarten for every child in Tacoma.

Nearly 200 people participated, sharing lighthearted comments about working with children while also having thoughtful conversations about how people were using the state-wide practice guidelines for Early Learning classrooms or the benchmarks for kindergarten readiness.

The events are widely considered a success. One kindergarten teacher commented, “I feel closer to the child care teachers who pick up and drop off. I'll take more time to talk with them.” At the conclusion of the events, several participants asked for further opportunities to connect, and said that they would bring even more colleagues next time.

In a county where more than half of the children entering kindergarten are not yet completely ready for school, opportunities for this kind of professional connection are filling a critical gap. One participant summed it up well, “I have been teaching early childhood for 18 years and I've never seen this many people from different entities come together to bridge this gap.”

While it's just a beginning, it's a bridge we want to continue to build, knowing that ultimately it really is all about the kids.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Hardest Decision I Still Haven't Made

by Kathryn McCarthy, Director of Donor Relations

For me, making a big decision is a process; a painful, tedious, annoying experience for all involved.  For example, before purchasing my dishwasher I spent hours, weeks scouring Consumer Reports, customer reviews, reviewing features and comparing brands and models.  I probed friends, neighbors, and the sales staff at Home Depot for recommendations.  I created a spreadsheet matrix; I shopped multiple stores and watched closely for sales.  Ultimately it took months for me to find a dishwasher, but in the end I was confident with my decision and six years later I still love my dishwasher.

So now imagine my process for deciding where my sweet, precious first born should go to kindergarten.  He will start this fall and at this point I am completely annoyed with myself – and here’s the kicker – I have not even decided!  My husband and I have spent over a year thinking about and researching the best place for our sweet, precious, first born son to attend kindergarten. We’ve narrowed it down to two schools and we’ve learned a lot along the way.

1.   Explore your options and prioritize what matters to you. A great thing about living in Pierce County and Tacoma is the many school options. There are traditional public schools, public Montessori, private Montessori, secular private schools, private Christian and Catholic Schools. While having so many options can be a bit overwhelming, it’s a testament to our community’s acknowledgement that every child and family is different and what works for one does not necessarily work for others.  Look beyond your neighborhood school because the best fit for you and your child might not be the closest school. And if you live in a neighborhood like us, you may live very close to several schools.

Prioritize what's most important to your child and family, taking into consideration academics, special education, sports, arts, and other extracurricular activities but also practicalities like tuition, transportation, and aftercare.  You can find test scores for public schools and detailed information about the programs offered (check out the links at the end of this article.)

2.   Listen up working parents - before and after care varies, a lot.  My husband and I both work full-time so for us before and after care is really, really important. This is where our child will spend 2-3 hours a day. The folks at before and after care are responsible for safely getting him to and from class. And school is not open as much as my office. I don’t get winter break, spring break, or the Friday before a holiday off – so I need a safe, loving and reliable place to take my child. Some care is onsite, and others require busing. Make sure you understand what the before and after care options are and then talk to them.

3.   Visit prospective schools.  To help me make a decision I again created a spreadsheet matrix. It really helped me to compare schools and see the differences.  By doing this I was able to narrow our search down to four schools. And the last couple weeks we’ve visited all four and the corresponding before and after care options.  We chose to bring our son along with us on three of the tours. I wanted him to see the schools and observe his reactions. We met teachers, principals and other parents and asked a lot of questions.

What will the school do to ensure that my child doesn't fall behind? What happens if my child gets behind? Or if my child is gifted, how do you develop those gifts even if the rest of the class doesn't have them? What is your approach to discipline? Can you walk me through a typical day? How many kids are in the class? How often do you assess a child’s progress?

4.   Think long-term.  A sticking point for me personally has been trying to think beyond kindergarten. Right now we are stuck between a great public school in our neighborhood and a private school that’s close but not in our neighborhood. Kindergarten is just one year; I want to set my son up for success through elementary, middle, high school, college and life. And we’re thinking through the goals we have as a family and parents. What if we move to a different neighborhood?  Is private school worth the extra cost? This is a great public elementary, but what will our options be for middle school and high school?

In the end we know our son and our family needs the best. Over the next couple months we’ll make our final decision on kindergarten and this decision will have tremendous impact on my son’s life, so he deserves us taking our time, doing our homework and putting his needs first.

1.   OSPI - State website with test scores and tons of information about schools across Washington.

2.   This is a national website where you can search schools across the US and find test scores.  It also has tips and articles on picking a school.

3.   Schools Districts (find schools individual websites) The following is a list of all sixteen public school districts in Pierce County, Washington: