United Way touching more lives than ever

Published 10:29 pm Thursday, December 9, 2010

DOWAGIAC — United Way of Southwest Michigan touched the lives of 45,000 people in Cass and Berrien counties last year.

“Used to be, in the old days, if someone got touched by United Way, it meant they had a really bad problem,” Campaign Manager Retta Curneal said.

Then the St. Joseph-based agency, which merged with Cass County in 2006 and absorbed Greater Niles this year, reinvented itself.

Greater Niles’ board decided March 29. The consolidation became complete in July.

“Their house burned down or they hit rock bottom and had nowhere else to go but the bottom of the barrel and scratch their way up,” she said. “They came to United Way for help. It’s not necessarily that way anymore. United Way has all kinds of great programs that just about anybody can participate in to help our residents of both counties have a better life. We want all our residents to have great lives from the day they’re born through retirement, but we know that takes a lot of education and the help of everyone. That’s why we call it ‘Live United.’ We all have to work together for everybody to have a great life. United Way is very much different than it used to be. It’s changed a lot since I came on board.”

Curneal spoke to 23 Dowagiac Rotarians Thursday noon at Elks Lodge 889 as the guest of Sheriff Joe Underwood.

She joined United Way in 2008 and is manager of her third campaign.

Her campaign cabinet includes Rotarian Joan Forburger of Lewis Cass Intermediate School District.

Curneal, who started working in Cass County this year and addressed the Board of Commissioners Oct. 21, reiterated, “I always tell people, ‘You may not see us here every day, but we are here.’ A lot of agencies headquartered in Benton Harbor and St. Joe have satellite offices here.”

United Way offers 49 programs through 37 funded agencies.

“We focus on the basic building blocks of life,” she said, “education, income, health and basic needs. If you’re missing any component, you have a really good chance of not having a good life. You can have all the education and income in the world, but if your health is terrible, what good does it do you? And in times of trials and tribulations and times of emergency, United Way will always be there to help out with the basic needs of our community.”

Each target issue contains goals beneath it, such as under education, United Way focuses on school readiness from birth to school.

“School superintendents tell me 5-year-olds come for kindergarten and they’ve never seen a book,” Curneal said, “let alone someone cuddling them up in their lap to read them a story. That’s terrible and should be illegal. They’re not going to have the best educational experience without a better start to life.”

In fact, she said, states project prison population growth with third grade reading skills.

“If a child can’t read well by third grade,” she said, “he or she has a very good chance of spending a good portion of their life” behind bars.

“If they can’t read well, they’re not going to learn well, so that’s our top priority. We want our families to have financial stability, with decent job skills. Part of that is learning how to handle money. Many of you are business owners or managers and I know you have people who live paycheck to paycheck. If they get a flat tire, they can’t afford to come to work because they can’t afford to go get a new tire. We offer classes that teach financial stability. We want babies to be born healthy and our adults to make healthy choices. Right now, in Cass County, only 68 percent of toddlers get immunized. That’s a statistic from the State of Michigan. That means a good number of Cass County children can get really sick. In both counties, we have a high ratio of obese adults — which I always talk about over breakfast or lunch. Donuts or pizza, it never fails.”

As far as basic needs, during the Great Recession of the past few years, “Folks have lost their jobs who never, ever thought they’d be unemployed. They need help, but they’re too proud to ask, but we’re there for them and for the folks who are always tottering on that fence between a good life and a not-so-good life.”

Goal for fundraising is $3 million. Payroll deductions for this campaign run Jan. 1-Dec. 31, 2011.

“Our needs are probably more like twice that amount,” she said. “In Cass County last year we raised approximately $40,000, but we invested $150,000. We’re proud sponsors of the (LCISD) backpack spectacular, which supplies up to 1,500 to needy children so they are equipped to start school.