My family and I moved to Whatcom County from Indiana almost four years ago. Despite being greeted with smiles, openness and genuine warmth, I still wore pessimistic blinders. I’d grown up in a place with high crime rates where the only news was bad news.
Then, two years ago, I was provided the opportunity to serve as a loaned executive to United Way of Whatcom County by my employer, BP Cherry Point Refinery. I learned that local companies donate employees to assist United Way during their workplace campaign season. This keeps overhead down, preserving funds to support local programs.
Ever the skeptic, my first question when I arrived for training was, “What’s the overhead?” There are just too many stories these days of charities mismanaging their funds. I was surprised to learn overhead comprised just 16.92 percent of the budget. I started to question my assumptions about United Way. Then came the success stories.
I was humbled when I heard about the work of United Way’s 30-plus partners, including Homeport Learning, Brigid Collins and Lydia Place. Then, I witnessed it. A co-worker and I went to lunch. He chose the destination: Five Guys. While we were waiting for our order, I was describing my work for United Way. My friend shared that he never gives to United Way because he doesn’t trust the money will be handled correctly.
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As he spoke, my eyes were drawn to an employee cleaning tables, being addressed by a woman who was positively reinforcing his work. It was apparent he had a cognitive developmental disability.
When he came to the table next to us, I started a conversation with him. His smile was infectious. A table cleared, and he quickly returned to work. I asked the woman watching him if she was with Work Opportunities, a United Way partner agency. Surprised at my awareness, she confirmed her affiliation and we discussed the value the program provides to people with disabilities, providing not only a paycheck, but also social interaction.
Groups like Work Opportunities assist people with disabilities with employment while Max Higbee Center, also funded by United Way, provides recreational activities for this same demographic. A healthy balance of work and play has proven to minimize trips to the hospital and empower people to live healthier lives.
My co-worker felt like the fix was in. “You set this up!” he exclaimed. I just laughed and reminded him that he chose the place to go for lunch.
You’ll see that United Way doesn’t provide a hand-out; they offer a hand-up. Give, because we can’t afford not to.
Ray Rodriguez, United Way volunteer
If I hadn’t had the experience I did with United Way, I wouldn’t have noticed the supported employee either. It becomes easy to walk through our hectic lives with blinders on. We stay focused on our phones or errands while expecting that someone else is out there taking care of society’s ills. United Way doesn’t look away; they know no one else is going to fix things.
My experience as a loaned executive left me feeling as if I hadn’t done enough, and never could. I also knew feeling overwhelmed wouldn’t improve anything. Just because something seems difficult, doesn’t allow us to not even try. I’ve seen what that leads to; it decimates communities. Once the blinders are lifted, people realize they let the things they thought were supposed to be handled by others overwhelm the infrastructure. Families start moving farther away from bad areas, allowing those areas to spread and property values to decrease.
All four of my grandparents emigrated from Spain. They ended up in Gary, Indiana, where there were jobs at the area steel mills. Population peaked around 190,000 residents back then. That number is now at about 77,000, with a median home value of $68,000, compared to the rest of the state at $131,000. Problems don’t go away when they are ignored; they slowly decay once-proud areas, leaving people to wonder how it happened and who to blame.
The responsibility lies with us. People are ready to do their part, if we do ours. I haven’t been able to help as much as I’d like with my time, but I can provide support financially. If you’ve never given, start light. You’ll begin to see the programs in action as well, like I did. You’ll see that United Way doesn’t provide a hand-out; they offer a hand-up. Give, because we can’t afford not to.
Ray Rodriguez is a safety lead for turnarounds and projects at BP Cherry Point Refinery. He was a loaned executve to United Way and has remained active as a donor and advocate.
How to help
To learn more about United Way of Whatcom County and how you can join the fight, visit unitedwaywhatcom.org or call 360-733-8670. Give. Advocate. Volunteer.