• 75°

POWER — United Way lifts up Mid & South County residents in need

(Editor’s note: This is one of a series of stories published this weekend in Part 2 “POWER” of The Port Arthur News’ 2020 Vision For Success series. The series appears each weekend in April and can also be read at panews.com.) 

Dalila Ramirez is keenly aware of just what kind of powerful impact United Way of Mid and South Jefferson County can have on people’s lives.

In her case, United Way helped her daughter learn to speak.

Born with substantial hearing problems and not speaking until she was 3 years old, Lily attended speech therapy thanks to financial help from Medicaid’s Children’s Health Insurance Program.

When Lily no longer qualified for those benefits, Dalila struggled to pay for continued sessions.

“The therapy is really expensive, and I couldn’t pay for it and didn’t know if I would be able to afford insurance on our own,” Ramirez said. “I was thinking of a way to continue her therapy myself, buying her the book and the things I saw at her therapy sessions to try to do them myself.”

Lily was referred to Capland Speech Therapy, which receives some funding through United Way. It was there Ramirez learned Lily’s therapy would be funded for a whole year through a United Way scholarship.

Lily is now learning to communicate with her family.

“I would tell her to do things and she would do it, and after a little while she would tell me, ‘I want this’ or ‘I want to eat’ or ‘I want water,’” Ramirez said. “I started noticing she would say more words, and it’s really been a big change with her and with our family.”

Lily’s story is a reflection of the kind of work United Way of Mid and South Jefferson County does. Organizations of United Way across all countries strive to help their communities with education, health and financial stability. In this area, that means funding programs like Capland, or Southeast Texas Hospice, Samaritan Counseling Center of Southeast Texas, Shorkey Center or the Southeast Texas Food Bank, among numerous others.

Janie Johnson, CEO of United Way of Mid & South Jefferson County, shows off a recent campaign T-shirt. (Ken Stickney/The News)

“Each United Way looks at the needs of their immediate community, then develops a plan on how to address those needs,” United Way for Mid and South Jefferson County CEO Janie Johnson said. “In our area it started out with fundraising to support other programs in the area and not as much direct programs. But about 15 years ago, United Way became more focused on impact and community outcomes. What that means is we still work with programs and support programs in our community, because many of them wouldn’t be open without us.”

That support translates to 196,569 meals served, 4,073 safe nights provided for domestic violence victims and 1,396 families assisted with basic and financial needs, all within the last six months.

“Here in Southeast Texas we’ve had so many challenges these past few years,” United Way board president Steven Andrews said. “With (Hurricane) Harvey and other hurricanes, there’s a lot of opportunities and a lot of special needs, you could say, that have come up. It’s been a challenge for our community. As a board member and a volunteer, it’s been very rewarding working for United Way. Personally I’ve gained a lot from it, and it really opened my eyes to the needs of the community.”

Steven Andrews

Andrews began actively volunteering after joining the board, and he’s found the work to be a “growing” experience.

“When I started my working career, the company I was with was very keen on supporting the United Way, and my attitude was, ‘Yeah, I’ll go ahead give a little bit of my paycheck each year,’ but I didn’t truly understand what that meant to help support the United Way,” he said. “To me, volunteering has been a growing experience, you could say. It’s really opened my eyes to what one individual can do to support the community and put smiles on people’s faces. It adds worth to what I’m doing on this earth, so there’s a lot of value in it.

“I hope more people see it like that. You’re not just donating money or time, you’re actually making a difference and might even become a better person for it.”

During this time of pandemic precautions, Andrews said some programs need more volunteers.

“The food bank, I understand, have had some folks that aren’t volunteering as often because of COVID-19, but the food bank needs some support and needs some volunteers,” he said.

The coronavirus pandemic has likewise delayed the implementation an initiative United Way has been working on for several months, United We Work.

Johnson said the program helps participants, particularly those working but still not financially secure, find more stability though a four-step process.

The program would assess a participant’s circumstances, their financial needs, their skills and their obstacles, and then use programs like First Impressions or scholarships in order to get participants prepared for more gainful employment. Next, participants will be given the opportunity to attend monthly workshops to learn how to manage their finances through budgeting, saving and improving their credit.

Participants can then take the next step towards important larges purchases like a vehicle or house. Finally, participants are encouraged to get involved in the community through volunteer work.

Johnson said life might need to return back to normal so United Way can work with applicants in person. Until then, she said plans are to begin finding candidates by the end of April.

“That program will be directly through our office, and we’ll have the applicants apply online,” she said. “Once they’re selected, they’ll receive coaching and help to go from a non-financially stable household to being financially stable and able to take care of themselves, as well as their families. We’ll focus on job preparedness and readiness, and we’ll have workshops monthly.”

Volunteer Allen Nation helps a special needs athlete with his glasses and helmet during a baseball game for Adaptive Sports for Kids. (Courtesy photo)

In the meantime, United Way MSJC’s board has dedicated $200,000 to a COVID-19 relief fund to support direct services. Andrews said those wishing to contribute or help as volunteers can find more information at United Way MSJC’s social media pages.

“Look online,” he said. “Look at the different partner agencies you would feel comfortable working with, like Samaritan Counseling or Shorkey Center. Go online to the United Way social media pages such as Facebook, Instagram and there’s some good information about how folks can help the United Way and help our partner agencies.”