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Olson and LaMartina next to sign

Olson, left, and LaMartina pose next to Lakeshore Elementary’s sign, which United Way helped put up.

J. Joy LaMartina, a resource development associate for United Way of the Greater Chippewa Valley, stands in front of a group of Eau Claire elementary teachers.

“How many kids in your classrooms might be experiencing troubles with mental health?” she asks.

A few hands go up.

“How many kids in your classrooms do you suspect go hungry on the weekends?”

More hands are raised.

LaMartina, along with United Way’s director of resource development Dustin Olson, are at Lakeshore Elementary in Eau Claire to spread awareness of the organization’s mission and recruit volunteers. After this meeting, some teachers might make another decision: a per-paycheck or per-year donation to the company.

The questions LaMartina asks might be particularly poignant for teachers, who spend their lives with the community’s children. Those Eau Claire and Chippewa county children, however, could be struggling with poverty, food access and limited academic help even more than previously thought.

That’s where United Way of the Greater Chippewa Valley and its own brainchild — a community impact model named ALICE — comes in.

Across county lines

“If you were to ask someone off the street what United Way is, they’d probably say we were a fundraiser. And we’re very proud of that. We can tout some big numbers. We raised … last year, $1.8 million between Eau Claire and Chippewa counties.” Jan Porath, six-year executive director and ten-year staffer at United Way, is clearly comfortable with the organization’s intricate relationship with the counties it serves. Not too long ago, Porath was that corporate employee volunteering at a United Way fundraiser or sitting in a pitch meeting herself.

United Way of the Greater Chippewa Valley raises funds from private companies and individuals in the area, as well as from its parent company. Those funds are distributed to nonprofits through three-year grants, Porath says, hence the cheerful bustle in the United Way office.

“Right now, we’re in the thick of it,” she laughs. “It seems like it’s a long way off, but from July 2018 to June 2021 is our next grant cycle … the process starts early.”

A seismic shift

Traditionally, United Way’s mode of operation was straightforward: raise money, accept applications then distribute grants, Porath says. But roughly 20 years ago, the company was seeing dismaying results: the nonprofits they funded were helping people in need, but long-term problems like poverty and low economic mobility were flatlining.

“We weren’t really at the point where we could show community change,” Porath remembers. “Need was increasing. We weren’t seeing a lot of changes we were hoping to see. This is more on the nationwide level, too. What did we need to do differently to address some of those root cause issues and create long-term change?”

So Porath, along with United Way staff, community leaders and volunteers, began the steps toward real change: giving more funding to prevention programs, gathering county-wide data and developing models to gauge the real needs of the people they serve.

Those steps weren’t slowed down when the Chippewa County and Eau Claire County United Way chapters combined in 2010, and five years later, Porath began to see real progress. “2015 was more of a major shift towards that impact model. We’d gone through consolidation, combined Eau Claire and Chippewa United Ways … (that year) was our announcement of new funding around these initiatives. That was a pivotal moment.”

A model for change

Their work paid off. In 2016, they published a report called ALICE — or Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed.

The ALICE model was designed to find the actual cost of living in each county, and figure how much an individual or family truly needed to earn to make ends meet: housing, transportation and food. No extra allotment was included on the model. Even cellphones were excluded.

ALICE produced alarming results. “We found that 42 percent of residents in Chippewa County and 47 percent of individuals in Eau Claire county were living below this ALICE threshold,” Porath says. For a family of four to meet the threshold, she says, would require an income of $54,000 per year.

Although the ALICE threshold is above the federal poverty line, Porath says, those numbers were surprising. “More often than not, (those families) are employed. It’s not uncommon for folks that are sometimes labeled the working poor — I don’t particularly like that type of label — to have multiple jobs.”

United Way brought several strategies to the table, eventually ending up with three areas of focus: education, income and health. Dozens of smaller initiatives cluster under these three umbrellas, but education is a thread that ties many of them together.

“If we can help the almost 5,000 children in our two counties in families at or below 200 percent poverty be cognitively, physically and behaviorally prepared to succeed in school, the Chippewa Valley will be stronger,” a mission statement on United Way’s website says.

The steps to reach their new goal are still in process. “I won’t be immediate. It’s complex. It’s not as simple as feeding a family for one day and all the problems are solved. There are other layers of issues that need to be addressed,” Porath says. “It’s more evolutionary than revolutionary.”

Nonprofits galore

ALICE meant that United Way can better root out those deeper community problems, and find the right nonprofit to address it, Porath says, and dozens of local organizations have received grants: Eau Claire’s Sojourner House, nonprofit Western Dairyland, Family Promise of the Chippewa Valley, domestic abuse victim shelter Bolton Refuge House, Agnes’ Table and Community Table are a few.

But volunteers play a large part in nearly every step of United Way’s process, and Porath cannot praise them enough. “Our Board of Directors is volunteer-run. We like to have the community help make the funding decisions. It completes the circle, in a sense.”

From bankers to construction workers to college students, United Way draws from all walks of life — and those diverse skill backgrounds, Porath says, are a very good thing. For example, a recent project saw United Way partnering with the Chippewa Valley Home Builder’s Association to roof a house. “My heart’s there, but my skills aren’t,” Porath jokes.

Reaching for more

United Way met their $1.8 million goal last year, which went to local nonprofits. They’re reaching for $2 million this year, Porath says.

As a college graduate, she worked at a local bank. While participating in a United Way fundraiser, she had what she calls an “Oprah a-hah moment.”

“We were sorting beans. They came from a local farmer — incredible, right? We were sorting the moldy beans from the good ones and bagging them so families could pick them up the next day. I just got to thinking about my day-to-day life. I go to the grocery store, buy what I need to buy. I live in an ultra-convenient world, in my little bubble. It was just a moment of clarity. That there are folks that need help.”

But other than sorting beans, her favorite part of the job is working with community volunteers.

“Some people like to roll up their sleeves and get dirty. Some like to help review grants. Some like to do both,” she says. “It doesn’t matter — we’ll take ‘em all.”

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