Irene focuses United Way effort

MIDDLEBURY — The United Way of Addison County’s goal for its annual fund-raising campaign remains unchanged from the past several years. But the organization’s officials are viewing the campaign, which kicks off this week with the Days of Caring volunteer event, in a landscape after Tropical Storm Irene that is both financially and literally different.
One constant remains from the past two years, when the United Way of Addison County’s annual effort has fallen just short of its $775,000 annual target: The economy remains stagnant, meaning the demands on the roughly 30 agencies UWAC supports are greater than ever.
At the same time, floods from both Irene and spring’s record-setting rain have already induced many to open their wallets to help their fellow Vermonters, many of whom have lost homes, businesses, crops and roads.
UWAC joined with other Vermont United Ways, the Red Cross and state and federal emergency management agencies to set up Vermont’s Long Term Disaster Relief Fund.
UWAC officials certainly want county residents to be generous to that cause, but not to forget those in Addison County who require ongoing assistance.
“We know that people are going to want to give to that (fund), and that’s important,” said UWAC Co-director Helen Freismuth. “We’re also hoping that people will give the same amount to the local needs, the local United Way.”
Campaign chairman Rob Alberts is optimistic that will be the case. Alberts, a long-time UWAC board member who owns Middlebury Fitness and is the president of Eastview at Middlebury retirement community, recalled that Hurricane Katrina struck just before the last year UWAC exceeded its campaign goal.
“Maybe it got people into the mode of thinking about those things,” Alberts said.
Alberts said he is more excited about UWAC than ever because of its focus in recent years on working with county nonprofits to better serve their clients. UWAC has added an Impact Funding Committee that has the expertise to help agencies become more efficient.
Alberts said UWAC now not only takes a global perspective of all the county’s needs, but also helps agencies become “lean and mean” in using their funds to make the greatest possible impact.
“The United Way is the perfect way to give back to the community, because it’s the only organization that has a bird’s-eye view of all the immediate needs of the community and the best ways to meet them,” Alberts said. “That’s why I’m so passionate about the United Way.”
UWAC board President Linda Schiffer said her organization is doing more to help agencies that receive its funds also improve themselves.
“We get a better measurement of the success of the agency,” Schiffer said. “We’re not looking for failure. What we’re looking for is for these agencies to do what they do better.”
An increased focus of UWAC funding in recent years has been housing and financial stability, said Co-director Kate McGowan. By providing those essentials, she said, other problems can be avoided.
“We went out and interviewed all our agencies and found out a lot of them were working on housing issues, which is just pervasive to every form of service that goes on in the county,” McGowan said. “That’s a nice combination of meeting immediate needs and financial stability in the long haul.”
As has been the case in recent years, the annual UWAC campaign will kick off with its Days of Caring. On Thursday and Saturday, when about 600 volunteers will fan out around the county to work on projects that include painting, building, gardening, rebuilding hiking trails and computer consulting.
Among the volunteers will be students from Middlebury Union High School, Hannaford Career Center and Northlands Job Corps. UWAC officials also said many businesses — including Middlebury College, Goodrich Corp., Country Home Products, and Shaw’s and Hannaford supermarkets — allow employees time off to participate.
Other businesses will cooperate with UWAC in the coming months. Area restaurants will chip in some of their proceeds in a Dine United Way program in October and November, and in November a similar Shop United Way program is set for Middlebury.
For those who have more time or expertise than cash, volunteer opportunities are not limited to the Days of Caring.
RSVP (Retired Senior Volunteers Program) and UWAC have teamed up on the Volunteer Center, which recruits, places and supports volunteers at Addison County nonprofits in areas such as human service, health, state and local government, education, literacy and the arts.
And UWAC has two new volunteer projects on the horizon in the coming months. One is an expansion of the Everybody Wins reading program now in Middlebury’s Mary Hogan Elementary School. UWAC has signed on with a national United Way partnership with Everybody Wins, which partners adult readers with 4th-graders on a long-term, weekly basis.
The national effort aims to sign up a million volunteers. UWAC hopes to add a couple schools; the first in what will be at least a three-year effort is the Salisbury Community School. McGowan said reading at that grade level is crucial.
“The 4th-grade reading level is really linked to high school graduation and success,” she said.
And UWAC is looking for volunteers, with accounting experience or not, to supervise tax preparation sites at which eligible people can fill out forms and apply for Earned Income Tax Credits. McGowan said only about half of Vermonters who are eligible apply for those credits, which can be worth from $1,500 to $3,000 to a family.
Ultimately, though, McGowan said UWAC needs both volunteers and funding, even when donors may be stretched thin in Irene’s wake.
“The good news is people really do want to respond to that, and it’s raised giving to a really broad level. The scary part for us is does that mean that people will not have enough to give to the things that go on every day in our communities. So we’re really trying to remind folks it’s wonderful to give to this big, important, overwhelming cause,” McGowan said. “That said, there is a real immediacy of what has to go on in our local communities.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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