Community Episode – County United Way with Michele Walker
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Eric: Hello, and welcome to “What Matters Most,” a podcast all about finances, community, savings, and security, for you, your family, and your business. This podcast is brought to you by the helpful folks at My Bank, First United Bank & Trust. I’m your host, Eric Nutter, and in today’s episode, “What Matters Most” is community. And for this helpful discussion, I am thankful to be joined today remotely by Michele Walker, executive director at County United Way, serving Allegany and Garrett Counties in Maryland, and Hampshire and Mineral Counties in West Virginia. Hey, Michele, how are you doing today?
Michele: I’m doing great, Eric. Thank you for the opportunity to be able to speak to the community. How are you?
Eric: I’m doing very well. And I really appreciate you taking the time out of your busy day to talk with me and tell us a little bit about United Way. So, let’s start there. Let’s talk about what is United Way, what do you do at County United Way, and what is your role there?
Michele: Well, let’s start with my role first. My role is, in January, I stepped up as the interim executive director, and in March, I accepted the position on a full-time basis. I’ve been with United Way for almost 34 years, and I started as an office manager. And then, prior to this position, I was a community resource development manager. And now I’m the executive director, and it’s my position to lead the team that we have here, and do what we need to do in the community. And what we need to do consists of going out into the four counties that we serve and identifying the most pressing needs in those communities. Then they go back to non-profits and say, “These are the needs that have been identified in the community.” We cover four counties, so the needs in each community could vary. “What programs do you have that could solve these needs?”
Once we receive requests for funding that address the needs, we have local volunteers in each one of the communities review those needs, and the volunteers decide which programs are gonna be funded to help address or solve those needs. So, each county is very local unto itself. Then what we do is we go out and try to raise some money to help these organizations be able to provide the services necessary in the community for those who are struggling or, you know, in a time of need.
Eric: That’s awesome.
Michele: That’s basically United Way in a nutshell.
Eric: Yeah. Yeah. So, it supports basically anybody and everybody, as long as the need is there and the volunteers want to raise money and support that thing?
Michele: Absolutely. I mean, we have identified three pillars. United Way, you know, Worldwide, has developed three pillars that we stick to, and it’s health, education, and financial stability. So, funding requests, particularly in Garrett County, could range in anything from helping to fund an afterschool program, to helping Garrett mentors, provide them some funding so they can find, you know, mentors for young folks in need in Garrett County. We provide some funding for Meals on Wheels in Garrett County. We also do, like I said, the afterschool program. You know, we fund a program from Pressley Ridge. And a lot of people may not be familiar with Pressley Ridge, but Pressley Ridge, we fund something called HOMEBUILDERS, which is a program to help families who may be in the throes, or suffering from, a loved one who has been addicted to opioids, and there are children in the homes, and they’re at risk of being removed. So, Pressley Ridge goes in and tries to provide guidance and counseling and different things like that, to keep the kids in the home. Western Maryland Food Bank, you know, provides food to some of the pantries and whatnot in Garrett County. So that’s basically right now what we’re funding in Garrett County.
Eric: And you’ve been doing this for a long time. That’s gotta be really rewarding to kind of see the support that is given to the community through United Way.
Michele: You know, I can honestly say I love my job. I love getting up every morning and coming in. No day is ever quite the same. The past two years have been probably a real struggle as far as all the years that I’ve been here, with the COVID, and I’m sure everybody’s feeling, you know, has struggled with that, but we’ve been blessed and we’ve been fortunate not only to receive ongoing campaign contributions from community members and businesses and employee campaigns, but we’ve also received funds in the way of COVID-19 relief funds. And I can tell you that, you know, just alone in Garrett County, we have provided, we’ve worked very closely with any organization that may have received requests or may have been struggling because of COVID, and we’ve been able to respond to that because foundations and businesses and individuals have given. And just in the last year, we’ve provided more than $27,000 in COVID relief, which is separate from the campaign.
So, you know, we’ve been really trying hard to do all we can do in all four of the counties. And, you know, I think we’ve been at least touching the problem and, you know, the COVID response… You know, COVID responses could have ranged from anything. I mean, we’ve helped people with gas cards to get…they were still working during COVID, but their hours had been cut, and didn’t have, you know, enough money for gas or electric bills or water bills or prescriptions, or, you know, rent. People that wanted to keep up on their rent even though the moratoriums were in place. So, you know, we’ve been glad to be able to be here to do that.
Eric: That’s really cool. Would you say that the…you said that the last, you know, 18 to 24 months or whatever with COVID has been…made it more challenging. Is it because there was more that needed done, or is it because it was harder to get people? What’s been your experience over these last couple years?
Michele: It’s been both. I think more folks have needed help, and it’s been a lot of different requests than we usually receive. We don’t usually…you know, we may not fund, for instance, car insurance or something like that, but because of COVID, and hours being cut with people working, some folks just didn’t have the money to pay their premium. So, we were able… You know, that funding was pretty well unrestricted as long as people…it was for people that were affected by COVID in one way or the other. So, you know, the requests for funding have been different. The requests for funding have increased. We’ve seen a downside, I guess, in contributions, as far as large businesses closing. When I first started at United Way…now, this was back in the stone age, just because like I said, I’ve been here 33 years, but, you know, we had what we called the big seven, and it was the Kelly [SP], the PPG, the railroad, you know, Westvaco, ABL, and whatever the other two were, and I don’t remember right off the top of my head, Celanese [SP] and something else, but we don’t have all of those anymore.
So, we don’t have the really, really large employers. But at the same time, we’ve had some of the larger employers step up, and we’re watching, slowly, but we’re watching employee campaigns grow. And the bulk of our campaign used to come from employee campaigns, and there’s a shift in that. So, we’re seeing a lot of smaller, maybe mom-and-pop shops, and a lot of the generation, I guess, when I first started here, it was almost expected that you give to United Way, and we’re seeing that generation retire, move away. And there’s not an expectation anymore, and there shouldn’t be. I mean, you should give to United Way, or to any organization, because it’s what you want to do, not because somebody tells you you should do it.
Michele: So, I think, you know, it’s a shift in the donor, and it’s a shift in the request. And today, I think there are so many donors that want to see the… They want instant gratification. They want to be able to see what their contribution did right now. And with the United Way, you don’t always do that. It’s more of a long-term thing. And, you know, we can provide outcomes and different things like that, but if you take a family shopping because they need clothes, you know, you see that right there and then, in the moment. And with United Way, it’s more of an investment in the community. So, it’s, over time, you know, your investments grow. So, when you invest in the community, it’s going to take time for the issues to be solved and the problems to be resolved.
Eric: Sure. And so, you mentioned things like gas cards and helping with insurance payments and stuff. That seems very one-on-one kind of requests, whereas, I guess in my head, I was thinking a lot of the activities that United Way got involved with were the larger-scale things, like food banks and that sort of thing. Is the one-on-one requests, are those common, or was that just more because of COVID?
Michele: Well, it’s both, I guess. United Way typically does not do a lot of direct service, and we didn’t do direct service with the COVID money. We were fortunate to work with other non-profits in the community, especially Garrett County Community Action and their team. They were more or less our go-to. If you have a COVID request, go to Garrett County Community Action. They filled out all the paperwork and submitted their requests. And what I will say is different is it was a staff decision rather than a volunteer decision. And the reason we did it that way because these folks needed help now. They didn’t need help, you know, six months from now. So, it was Garrett County Community Action would submit the application, the staff would review it, and within 24 hours, Garrett County had approval and the money to pay whatever the need was.
Eric: That’s so powerful.
Michele: Yeah. We did those really quick.
Eric: Yeah. That’s amazing. So, that’s really cool the way that United Way is structured to be able to work with all these non-profits in the market, so that you can kind of pull strings as needed to help people in the moment. That’s really cool.
Michele: It is. And I’m fortunate to have the team that I have here. There are three full-time employees, and we just hired a part-time admin person. But our finance director, Misty Deal, she’s the one that really…she reached out to Garrett County Community Action, said, “Look, guys, we have this money, we have these grants, and we need somebody to spearhead it.” And Gregan Crawford and Ryan Miller up there stepped up, and they said, “You know what? We’ll do it.” And between Garrett County Community Action and their partnership with Christian Crossing, you know, we were able to stretch the money that we had even further, because Christian Crossing would step in and help, too, if the requests were more than what we were able to handle. And I think, you know, kudos to Garrett County Community Action. And I need to give a big thanks to Misty for work, stepping out of her comfort zone, which is finances, and reaching out with them. And she has a wonderful relationship with them, and they were willing to take it on in addition to everything else they were doing.
Eric: That’s really cool. That’s awesome. Well, let’s talk a little bit about where the funds come from. And, you know, this podcast obviously is put on by First United Bank & Trust, and we just recently held our annual golf tournament, and those funds go to help support United Way. So, let’s talk a little bit about that golf tournament. We had some success this year.
Michele: You know, I can’t say enough about First United, but I will tell you this. In all the years that I’ve been here, that’s the only time I’ve cried when I’ve received a check. The golf tournament, in the past, Garrett County, we usually set internal goals for our campaigns in each county. And for several years, Garrett County’s goal was around $100,000, and it’s since dropped a little bit because some of the shifts in employment and different things. But the golf tournament typically was about a quarter of the $100,000 goal. So, we received, you know, $25,000 from it. Now, you know, the past two, because of COVID, obviously, have gone down a little, but when we were presented a check for $40,000, I just looked at the people that were in front of me, and saw Misty and Jill, you know, my other team members, and I just started crying. And then both of them were crying, and I had…poor Carissa. I had Carissa crying. But that meant the world to me.
I am so grateful and thankful to Janet and Carissa and their team at First United for putting this golf tournament on, and for everyone that came out, the sponsors, all the golfers. I never felt so supported and welcomed as I did that golf tournament this past year. It was just a wonderful experience. And it gave me, I guess, the confirmation that we do make a difference in Garrett County.
Eric: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Michele: And the nice thing, Eric, is that contribution alone is actually what we had invested the previous year in Garrett County. And the programs with the non-profits that we funded were about $40,000, $42,000. So, we’ve covered that for this year, and it was a great way to kick off the campaign. It really, really was. And, you know, I can never say enough about how grateful and thankful we are for that golf tournament and the folks at First United. And, you know, we see some of the same faces every year, to, you know, the golfers that come out, and I just want to give my heartfelt thanks and appreciation to all of them. It’s great, you know, to see them year after year, and be able to cut up and carrying on with them. But yeah, the support is just wonderful.
Eric: Kudos to you all, and for your support through it to us. And I agree with you. It’s been really cool to see it over the years. I mean, I’ve been with the bank for 18 years, and the whole time, we’ve been doing the golf tournament. And I agree with you, Janet Marsh does a phenomenal job putting that on every year and doing her part. And I’m so happy that it worked out really well this year for you all.
Michele: Yeah, I am too, and, you know, I’d like to think that… Hopefully, we took the time with some of the golfers to be able to talk to them and tell them, you know, what their contributions, you know, by them playing in the golf tournament, what that meant to the community and who they were helping, and how we were able…exactly what United Way is. So, I’m hoping that we’re getting the story out more, and that’s a terrific avenue to be able to do it.
Eric: Absolutely. Absolutely. Well, let’s talk about other events. Are there any other upcoming events that you all have planned for the remainder of the year or the fiscal year for you all? Any support you need?
Michele: We sure do. We were approached by the Garrett County Rotary to help with the French fry booth. I’m looking for volunteers, if anybody is willing to help us, we are looking for volunteers for, I believe it’s Saturday, August 7th, from 12 to 9, to help us at the Rotary French fry booth at the Garrett County Fair. Now, the Rotary has two shifts. They like to do 12 to 5 and 5 to 9, but if we were able to get at least 12 volunteers, I think we can break those shifts down and maybe do 12 to 3, 3 to 6, and 6 to 9, so folks don’t have to work, you know, a really long time. So, anybody that’s interested in volunteering for that, they can call the office or go on the website and shoot be an email or whatever. I’ll give you that information soon as I get done here.
So we have Garrett County Fair, for the Rotary French fry booth. And then, Misty is going to proceed with what we’re calling Stuff the Box this year. We usually do Stuff the Bus, but for unforeseen reasons, and I would imagine for COVID, we’re not allowed to have the bus at the establishment that we usually do. So, Misty’s going to get boxes out in the community. So any business that would like a box, if they contact the office, we’ll make sure we get a box up to them. And then we inventory all the school supplies and then give them to the Board of Ed, and the Board of Ed gives them to those children that need them. So, we have that coming up. And I think that we talked yesterday that pick-up day for that, or drop-off day, will be Friday, August 20th, but I’ll double-check on that.
And then, one other thing we have coming up will be in September. And it’s the week of September 23rd, and I wanna say that’s a Thursday. And folks that usually go to the DelFest Music Festival at the Fairgrounds in Allegany County on the Memorial Day weekend, they moved it to that weekend in September. We’re looking for volunteers to help us with that. We will be working at the beverage center. I don’t have the dates and times yet. The young lady that recruits the volunteers should be sending that to me, but anybody that volunteers, you have to be 18 or older. Anybody that volunteers gets free admission to the festival for that day. And we usually get a contribution for doing that. And if we get folks from all of the counties that we support and service, what we’ll do is we’ll divide the contribution that we get from that, you know, appropriately amongst each county, so that if folks from Garrett County come down and volunteer, then the Garrett County United Way campaign will receive a contribution on their efforts.
Eric: That’s great. Lots of opportunities to help.
Michele: [crosstalk 00:19:11] You know, we try to stay busy, we really do. And if you take what we do and times it by four, because of four counties, we stay pretty busy. So, we try to find big events, like the DelFest thing, that would benefit everyone. Like I said, we only have three full-time staff, so sometimes it’s hard to have three people in four places.
Eric: Absolutely. Well, I’m assuming you also will accept just straight-up donations from people in the community as well, if anyone wants to support United Way.
Michele: We absolutely will. Might wanna mention, too, that we just redesigned our website, and I think it’s really user-friendly. It’s still a work in progress. We still have some things that were required by United Way Worldwide to get up on the website. So, we’re in the process of doing that, but…
Eric: What’s the web address for that?
Michele: [crosstalk 00:20:04] Web address is www.cuw.org. We just put a picture up today of a Live United Grant that we awarded to Mountain Maryland Search and Rescue team, which is a team of volunteer humans and canines that go out and search for people if they’re missing. And what we did was we helped them purchase some of the GPS and other equipment that they need to do that. And it’s a really neat organization, and it serves…it goes anywhere. So, if a person’s missing in Garrett County, they’ll go there. So, in all four counties that we serve, plus they’ve been called other places. So, the website’s new. You can go to the website, there’s a place to volunteer at the website, and it sends us an email and notifies us, or there’s a place to contribute on the website now, and you have the option of giving to whatever community you want to. So, if somebody lives in Garrett County, if they press the Garrett County button, they can contribute, you know, PayPal, credit card, whatever. And it sends Misty some kind of a code and says “this person contributed, and wants their gift to stay in Garrett County.” We also accept, you know, checks and cash, if you see us out anywhere. I wouldn’t suggest sending cash in the mail.
You can set up with your bank to do electronic funds transfer, so, it could be a recurring gift. And any of that, I mean, people can go to the website and check out giving on the website. They can mail a contribution to us. We have a PO Box in Garrett County. Our office is located in Allegany County, but all you have to do is note on it that the gift is for Garrett County, and we’ll make sure that it gets there.
Eric: That’s awesome. Or any of [crosstalk 00:21:59].
Michele: They can call the office, we can take… Right. And they can call the office and we can take credit card information over the phone.
Eric: Fantastic. Lots of ways to support County United Way and all the great things you all are doing. Michele, are there any final thoughts that you have? Anything we didn’t cover that you wanted to make sure we talked about?
Michele: Probably, but I don’t remember them.
Eric: That’s okay. That’s okay.
Michele: No, if anybody has…
Eric: There are plenty more opportunities to be on the podcast, so you’re more than welcome.
Michele: Oh, you know, call me. We’re always willing to talk, but if anybody has any questions, I am more than willing to go speak to service organizations. Next week, I’m going to a park in McHenry, I believe, to speak to Deep Creek Lions Club. I’ll be up in Oakland next week, I believe it is, to speak to the Rotary. We’re willing to travel. We’ll come speak to your clubs, groups, organizations. Call me on the phone, more than happy to have a phone conversation. And want to go to lunch, I’ll go to lunch with you. I make it easy, you know. So, I got an email yesterday that said, “How late do you work in the evenings?” And I said, “As late as I need to. What time do you want to meet?” So, my door is always open if anybody has any questions. Feel free to give us a call. Our number’s 301-722-2700. We also have a toll-free number. It’s 877-597-2700. Or, like I said, they can go to the website, www.cuw.org, shoot us an email. Our emails are on the website. And, you know, please contact me, reach out if you have questions, anything.
Eric: That’s awesome. Michelle Walker, executive director at County United Way, serving Allegany and Garrett Counties in Maryland, and Hampshire and Mineral Counties in West Virginia. Michelle, thank you so much, sincerely, for joining me today and talking a little bit about United Way and what’s going on, and the exciting things you all are doing in our communities. I really appreciate it.
Michele: Well, Eric, I appreciate you having me. It’s been my pleasure, and any time, I am more than willing to come on and speak.
Eric: Sounds good. Well, that brings us to the end of our show. You can always find more episodes by visiting mybank.com/podcast, or find us on your favorite podcast app. You can also leave feedback, ask questions, or request a topic for us to discuss by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks again for listening. We’ll be back next week with more helpful content. But until then, we wish you the best in focusing on what matters most to you.
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