United Way gives a first look at what's changing across the region

Infants, school-age children, working parents, senior citizens, paroled felons now seeking work — these are some of the lives that are being changed in Calhoun and Kalamazoo counties as a result of programs funded through the regional United Way.

At a gathering this week at Stryker headquarters that was something of a sneak peek of United Way’s annual campaign, CEOs learned of the new data driven methods changing the way the organization is now tracking the impact of the support it offers across the region and how it expects that to improve the work done to better lives in the communities it serves.

Business leaders also heard from those who, thanks in part to United Way donations, are able to do the work that makes a difference in the lives of those most in need across the community.

Campaign Co-chair Kevin Lobo, Stryker Chairman and CEO, who hosted the event, and Co-chair Tom Beuchler, President and CEO of Schweitzer Construction of Battle Creek, talked of the role of business in positively influencing the community. And Grace Lubwama, CEO of the YWCA of Kalamazoo; Luke Kujacznski, Director of Urban Alliance; Robert Littke, President and CEO of Senior Services of Southwest Michigan all passionately spoke of the work that is yet to be done. 

In a panel discussion, a question was posed to each of them to get at the essence of their work. For Lubwama, the question was, “Why is it necessary to use demographics to tackle a complex issue like reducing infant mortality?”

In 2014, Kalamazoo had an infant mortality rate that was the second highest in the State of Michigan, Lubwama says, and today, regardless of their parents’ income, being born black in Kalamazoo means a baby is four times as likely as a white baby to die in their first year of life. Babies in Jamaica and Cuba have a better of survival than black babies born here. 

“We are doing something that does not make sense,” Lubwama says. Kalamazoo is a community of many resources — that is what gives Lubwama hope that these conditions can be reversed. They must be, she says, to make sure that youngsters can enjoy the programs intended to get them ready for kindergarten, reading at grade level in third grade, and graduating from high school so they can experience the Kalamazoo Promise. 

Why corporate giving?

Stryker is one of the region’s largest corporate donors, giving nearly $1.5 million annually in both corporate and employee gifts, as well as hundreds of hours of volunteer service to the United Way. The question to Kevin Lobo was: “In a competitive and constantly changing philanthropic field, why do you and Stryker continue to commit your time and treasure to United Way?”

Lobo’s response: “Given our position in the community, we need to step up. It’s the right thing to do, a matter of integrity. We have had a lot of good fortune as a company and with great success comes responsibility. It’s important that we have a vibrant community. Our mission is that we are driven to make healthcare better and it’s important that we have that drive in our community, too. We want to lift the entire community.” 

To move toward that outcome, the goal for the 2017 campaign is to increase by 10 percent in the number of donors — up from 17,000 in 2016 — and the number of volunteers — up from 3,650 last year. The region has very generous people, “but we don’t have enough people giving,” Lobo says.

Though Stryker is constantly asked for donations, Operation Smile and the United Way are the groups to whom it gives priority, Lobo says. “These are the two priority projects that we put our time and contributions behind. We want to assist in whatever way we can and to be a good corporate citizen, especially in a community like this that needs our help.”

Luke Kujacznski, of Urban Alliance, a program that helps place people in jobs, was asked to describe his program, known as Momentum. “What sorts of training are they receiving? How do Urban Alliance and United Way partner to empower them?” 

Kujacznski told the group that Urban Alliance works with those who cannot find employment because they carry a stigma such as a criminal record or substance abuse. “Ninety percent of the individuals we work with have been in the criminal justice system. Eighty-five percent have had a history of substance abuse. Seventy-five percent are from single parent homes, and many are single parents themselves. We have had people in our program who were released from prison 30 years ago and who have never been able to get back on their feet. There is talent there if they get the individual help they need.

“The reason this is important is that one-quarter million kids have one parent incarcerated in Michigan,” Kujacznski says. “When we help these parents, it really is the next generation we’re helping, the generation who can be Promise eligible.

“When we have exit interviews we ask what it was about the program that was the most helpful,” Kujacznski continues. “I thought it would be that we helped them find a job. But the Number One thing they tell us is that this is the first place where they were not judged for their past. They want what everyone wants, to know ‘I am valued, someone sees me.’ They are getting jobs and now their kids are seeing a new path. Hope is being created again.”

And employers eager to hire those who have been through the Momentum program. “They tell us their attitude toward hiring those with criminal records has been shifted. Currently, Momentum serves 53 employers and has had to turn others away. The United Way has been the perfect partner in doing this work.”

Robert Littke, President and CEO of Senior Services of Southwest Michigan, was asked to describe food insecurity and how the United Way support for the Meals on Wheels Program helps alleviate it.  

Meals on Wheels stops the “toast and tea syndrome,” Littke says. Without such a service, many elders will have little more than toast and tea for their meals. Some may eat a half bowl of soup for lunch and the other half for dinner. Meals on Wheels provides them with the food they need to stay healthy. “Proper nutrition is the basis of all good health,” Littke says. “All the technical medical advancements can’t help you if you don’t eat well.”

Senior Services of Southwest Michigan also helps older people stay out of nursing facilities and in their own homes, Littke says, which in turn keeps down the cost to taxpayers since 70 percent of those in nursing homes are Medicaid patients.

Littke says Senior Services of Southwest Michigan with the help of United Way is making a difference. He hears of it from those they serve. “A woman sent me a note and in it she said she was 92. Her husband had died 10 years ago. She had no relatives, no friends. Because of Senior Services and the United Way she was able to continue to live at home. And she wanted to thank us. She taped five pennies to the bottom of the note. It still chokes me up every time I talk about it. That’s the difference you make when you give. Don’t underestimate the power of United Way.”

Similarities between how Schweitzer Construction gets big jobs done and how United Way tackles some of the community’s most complex issues was the final question. Tom Beuchler jokingly acknowledged that the question could lead to a self-serving response, but there are ways in which the two are similar. A team that listens to clients and uses feedback is important for Schweitzer. United Way used the feedback that it had heard — that its work was a mile wide and an inch deep — to change its focus to the four key areas: health, basic needs, income, and education. In a similar way, Schweitzer develops strategies, creates solutions and answers for issues the client might have. “We do our work as a team, not as individuals.”

Panelists were followed by Chris Harris-Willment, CEO of Boys and Girls Club of Greater Kalamazoo who told the group just how much the Club meant to him as he was growing up in an abusive, chaotic situation in Raleigh N.C.

His alcoholic mother often left him alone on weekends. She also tried to convince him to skip school and forced him to drink with her. Though he had to walk a mile to get to the Boys Club (there were no Girls Clubs then) he was there every day. And he attended school every day because if he did not he could not attend Club. He had a wide range of opportunities that he never would have experienced without his participation in Boys Club. Through connections he made at the Boys Club he ultimately received a scholarship and went to college. He went on to serve in the Air Force and has a corporate career that includes work with Vanguard, Pfizer, Stryker Medical, and others. “When you support the United Way you support the Boys and Girls Club so we can support young men and women who are just like me.” 

United Way President and CEO Chris Sargent reminded the group that $11 million was raised in the annual campaign in 2016 and he challenged the business leaders to consider what they can do to help. “We need each and every one of you. How do we come together to meet the need of our communities?”

The event that culminated in an appeal for unity, started out with an explanation of new system for analyzing data that will  allow the United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region to be able to report results within six to eight weeks after a program concludes, rather than on an annual basis. The United Way now can see where progress is being made and where investment is bringing the greatest returns. It also shows where changes or new strategies are needed.

As Matt Lynn, of the United Way, told the gathered community leaders the data shows the collective impact of the work rather than program-by-program results. 

“Whether we are making an impact or not, now we can back it all up. And we are really excited about that,” Lynn says. “We feel really confident that this is the right system to communicate and engage and connect in a deliberate way.” 

The new way of tracking data will allow the United Way, for example, to see where their investment is making a difference in terms of where people need food. “These are not just numbers on a spread sheet. These are our neighbors.”

No longer will it be necessary to rely on anecdotal reports. Instead, there will be proof that results are being realized. “That’s why we’re so excited,” Lynn says.

Kathy Jennings is the managing editor of Southwest Michigan’s Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor.
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