Last year, the United Way of Genesee County helped 85,000 people in the county with $14.5 million in funds to 150 programs, according to the organization’s president and CEO, Jamie Gaskin. The United Way works in four areas: basic needs, education, health and financial stability. Recently the branch expanded to provide services in Shiawassee County.

What They Do

Basic Needs: Resources exist to help those in need, but most people don’t know what’s available or how to get help. That’s where 211, a service funded by United Way, comes in. If you pick up your phone and dial 211, you will be connected with someone who can direct you to the proper health or human service resource. 211 is sponsored by a coalition of county branches of United Way. Genesee and Shiawassee counties are in the central Michigan 211 district, which serves a total of nine counties. They also offer a searchable online database. “Twenty thousand people a year call 211 for help,” Gaskin says. “With the water crisis, more people have been calling. Last year, it was about 30,000 people.”

Education: Education has lost funding over the years. Teacher wages have dropped to below cost of living in some areas, and more than 1.2 million students drop out each year without graduating. United Way of Genesee County funds all the public school districts in the county. United Way helps by ensuring education for the youngest students, long before a lifetime of poor education has demotivated them. For students 8 years old and older, the organization sponsors extracurricular activities and mentorships. United Way sponsors the “A to Z Learn with Me” program that distributes books to the parents of newborn babies to give them an early start with literacy. They also sponsor Club Connect, a reading program for Title I schools, as well as give grants to youth organizations.

Health: United Way funds the Genesee Health Plan (GHP), which enables low-income residents of the county to have health care. They fund a full-time person to work with people who have a language barrier and help walk them through the system. In addition to funding GHP, United Way helps 800 local seniors stay in their homes, according to Gaskin. “This helps the seniors stay happy and saves money because they don’t want to move,” he says. Additionally, they fund the Valley Area Agency on Aging and the KISS program that follows up with people after they get out of the hospital.

Financial Stability: The organization funds financial literacy education through several area agencies. They also fund the Employer Resource Network (ERN). ERNs are groups of both public and private organizations that work for employee retention through giving training and support to the workers so they can improve skills, overcome barriers and advance. Our local ERN covers mid-Michigan and works across four companies: The Genesee Group, Northgate, MTA and Lear, the newest member, which came on board Oct. 1. “They remove barriers so people can succeed,” Gaskin says. “They help employees with child care,food, rent assistance, transportation. It is open to all employees but they focus on entry level because that is where retention problems come in. It benefits both employee and employer.”

Getting Involved

There are many opportunities to get involved in community volunteer work through United Way of Genesee County. One of the upcoming drives is called Giving Tuesday, which takes place on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. This year, the date is November 27. In the spirit of holiday generosity, interested parties can donate time, money or both. You can find out more by visiting givingtuesday.org.

There are various campaign kickoff events listed on their website, unitedwaygenesee. org. You can make a donation to the Flint Water Fund of Bus Pass initiative.

Another important way citizens can become involved is through advocacy. United Way supports members in speaking out in person and on social media regarding causes they are passionate about. If you want to make sure you find a volunteer opportunity that is the best fit for you, United Way runs Genesee Serves (GeneseeServes. org). “This volunteer center coordinates volunteers with projects, and the volunteers can be kids as little as 5 years old to seniors. They place 5,000 volunteers per year,” Gaskin says.

For working age adults, another opportunity is Service in a Box. “We do this with our corporate partners,” Gaskin says. “They get all of their staff involved, bring people to the site. There are hundreds of people doing different things. One example is collecting school supplies for kids with Walmart, so teachers don’t have to buy their own supplies.”

All in all, United Way is a group endeavor and a perfect place to get involved in the community. “We achieve success through the success of our partners,” Gaskin says. “We try to be a catalyst, offering a hand up, not a handout."