Mesa United Way reaches out to East Valley - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Mesa United Way reaches out to East Valley

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Posted: Thursday, October 15, 2009 5:41 pm | Updated: 2:14 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

Thomas Schildgen: Mesa United Way has allowed me the opportunity to live a life of purpose and service while knowing that my charity is accountable and truly makes a difference.

"I gave at the office" has become a common saying in American vocabulary because of the United Way.

While many perceive the United Way as one organization, it is actually a collection of more than 1,200 separate organizations that share a common goal of providing a way for people to "give where they live" by providing their time, talents and monetary donations to their community. While other organizations have a specific cause such as homelessness or crisis help, a United Way's cause is actually its community and making sure that critical services are available locally.

Each United Way is assigned a specific area in which to evaluate community needs and work to develop ways to meet those needs. As such, each United Way creates its own local policies and clearly reflects the community that it serves. I have volunteered with my local Mesa United Way for more than 10 years, and I have been personally involved in its work.

The Mesa United Way board has 61 members, with board members serving as chairs to a variety of community committees. While the role of the campaign volunteers are often the best known in the community, other volunteer committees evaluate community programs and determine how to spend the dollars raised, provide oversight for personnel policies, recruit volunteers to help throughout the community and provide financial oversight to the organization. Our annual audit is commissioned by our audit committee and is performed by a local firm. Our most recent audits are posted on our Web site at www.mesaunitedway.org/about-us/accountability/our-financials.

Our budget is developed by our finance committee and approved by our board. Given the current state of the economy, it's no surprise that last year we did not raise as many dollars as in previous years. In response we have laid off staff and not provided pay increases. Our president, Carol McCormack, has not received a raise in two years and benefit expenses have been cut.

I am so proud to be involved with an organization that meets challenges with a spirit of optimism regardless of the obstacles. All of our staff and board members are committed to providing as much as we can for our community, and even in times of struggle we have developed new ways to help.

As an example, more than 1,000 East Valley children are removed from their homes due to abuse and/or neglect by child protective services per year, with approximately 45 percent of the children under the age of 5. Recent state budget cuts have resulted in a decrease in funds available for clothing, school supplies and personal care items for these children. The current state budgeted amount is about $12 per month per child. Funds for birthday and Christmas gifts, as well as tutoring, were completely eliminated.

In response, we have developed a foster care project called Helen's Hope Chest, where we collect new and gently used items for distribution to these foster children. Running drives for clothing, shoes and other items while we are running our campaign drive creates efficiencies of effort and allows us to respond to increased needs without having a huge impact on our budget. We could not do this project if it weren't for our new VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America) program where we recruit adults, age 55 and older, to do various projects for organizations in our community. We were fortunate to be chosen as a VISTA site and appreciate the willingness to work with our vision of using volunteer retirees to help address our budget cuts and increased need.

From a personal perspective, Mesa United Way has allowed me the opportunity to live a life of purpose and service while knowing that my charity is accountable and truly makes a difference.

Thomas Schildgen is a department chairman at Arizona State University and serves as the 2008-10 board chairman of Mesa United Way.

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