Living United

United Way of Marion County coordinates community resources to help people navigate challenges.

Alan Keesee, Linda Allcott, Kristy Rowland, Bob Haight, Niki Tripodi, Beth Nelson and Greg Harrell

Before seeking help from United Way of Marion County (UWMC), Raquel Fuentas laid in a hospital bed with no place to go, no car to take her and her kids to safety and no counseling for the domestic abuse that had left her hospitalized and she and her children traumatized. 

When Fuentas called United Way’s 211 program and learned about the Strong Families program, she put her children in a wagon and pulled them for an hour until they arrived at the UWMC office. 

Fuentas was assigned a success coach, who helped her secure housing, employment and counseling services. Her coach, she says, “made sure that not only were our financial needs met, but that our family was on the road to recovery.” 

UWMC was founded in 1961. The agency’s mission statement reads, “Uniting Local Resources to Help Our Neighbors.” The website notes that the aim is to “change the conditions that lead to hunger and violence.”

“United Way has been transforming lives in Marion County for over six decades thanks to the founder, horseman Bonnie Heath, who had the extraordinary vision to create and spearhead a United Way for Marion County and a vehicle to help those in need in our community,” says James Henningsen, a board member and president of the College of Central Florida. “We are convinced that together, we are changing the world. When we LIVE UNITED, we can accomplish anything focusing on the three core areas—education, financial stability and the health of Marion County residents. We work collaboratively with our 19 community partners and other nonprofits to create a positive and sustainable impact in our community.”

Charles McIntosh, the college’s dean of Criminal Justice and Public Service, and also a board member, notes that, “United Way is an organization that provides a vehicle for the entire community to help other community members. As a young man, I can remember receiving help from agencies such as United Way, governmental entities and directly from neighbors.”

UWMC programs include:

  • The ReadingPals early literacy program, through which youth can achieve academic goals.
  • Under the Community Partnership School model, UWMC partners with Marion County Public Schools, HCA Ocala, Heart of Florida Health Center and the Public Education Foundation of Marion County to offer clothing, food, school supplies, primary healthcare, behavioral health needs, dental services and more at College Park Elementary School.
  • The Strong Families program provides two cycles of 15-week training courses a year, along with a personal coach to help individuals and families achieve their goals.
  • The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program uses trained volunteers to help prepare clients’ taxes at no cost to them.
  • The FamilyWize program offers services designed to enable individuals to develop and maintain a healthy lifestyle.
  • The 211 program is a helpline to connect individuals with health and human services.

“Fundraising and marketing are critical to the success of these programs,” offers Robert Haight, UWMC president and CEO. “We strategically invest in open programs and services that solve complex issues, bettering the community for all.”

Reice Reid, Susana Escalona, Yaritza Hernandez, Rafael Palacios and Camila Garcia

UWMC achieves this, he says, through its annual giving campaign, which this year has a goal of raising $1.6 million.

“We need businesses and individuals to invest in our mission so we can reach our desired outcomes through a network of partner agencies and UWMC-managed programs,” Haight explains. “United with donor support, we can drive our work forward and create a lasting impact. We measure impact in many ways, such as improved school attendance, academic achievement, stable housing, improved employment and income, reduced debt and number of tax returns completed for seniors and low-income populations.”

UWMC relies on donations through workplace campaigns, sponsorships, corporate donations, grants and private donations, the latter of which account for more than 75 percent of revenues. The Alexis de Tocqueville Society of donors who give $10,000 plus currently has 13 members.

Giving and volunteer opportunities abound, from donating funds to hosting a workplace donation campaign to volunteering for ReadingPals or helping prepare taxes.

“It takes more than 100 volunteers to raise funds impacting Marion County,” Haight says.

“While Marion County has been blessed with great abundance, we also still have many folks in real need,” says board member Jared Kostanty, CEO of Signature Brands, a sponsor of the Strong Families program. “The UWMC Strong Families program is a real force for change in fundamentally and foundationally helping those who find themselves in need of help. A remarkable proportion of Strong Families graduates leave the program with full time employment, steady housing, improved credit and personal budget discipline, among many other life skill areas.”

“If you follow the program it works,” Fuentas offers. “My four kids and I went from nothing to a better life. My kids do chores and UW’s ReadingPals encouraged us to read together at night. My kids reading scores have improved.”

“When I went to the bank and said I was a Strong Families graduate, they were excited to help me because they believe in the program,” she adds. “I have a savings account for the first time in my life.” OS

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