By Mary Fuller
Every day of every year, the United Way of the Coastal Empire is committed to helping members of our community. We are the link between understanding the needs of our friends and neighbors who are struggling and identifying the right programs to meet those needs.
This service is the very basis of traditional social work and can be the step that helps someone to rise above their current difficult circumstances and enables them to be more successful and contribute to our community in the most productive ways.
Well, of course, nothing in life is that simple. Most people that approach us, taking that first big step, ask for help with their most urgent need at that moment. However, after a little conversation it becomes clear that many underlying issues exist.
The typical family that contacts United Way usually has a set of complex needs. A family who comes in for rental assistance may have a disabled child that needs special services and requires extra care that makes it difficult for one parent to work.
The working parent has a consistent and steady job but makes $18 per hour as a healthcare worker and even with the child’s disability check it is difficult to save any money for unexpected expenses. The family pays over 50% of their income to cover their housing expenses, well above the recommended 30%.
Now, one of their two family vehicles has broken down and needs new brakes. The family must have two cars to get one parent to work and the other to their child’s appointments. This is the crisis that pushed them to United Way for help.
So it appears simple – pay their rent for the month and get them back on their feet. Yes, of course we provide the assistance, but does that just get them through to the next crisis – the next car problem, the next medical expense, the next hurricane evacuation, or next pandemic?
The real question is how do we help them reach real self-sufficiency where they will not need us at the next crisis? The old saying of “teaching a man to fish” instead of just feeding him, springs to mind.
Many people would say they just need to find less expensive housing. Again, not so simple.
This would most likely involve moving outside of Bryan County, where average rent for a two-bedroom rental is $1,200 per month. Often, families are trying to stay in Bryan County as they know their children will receive a good education in any of our great schools. Who can blame them? Isn’t that what we all want for our children? Also, this family does not want to leave Bryan County as their disabled child is in a great public school-sponsored program and the disruption could negatively impact his progress and learning.
Finally, moving to find affordable housing usually means moving farther away from the working parent’s job, increasing their budget for gas and vehicle maintenance, which lessens the savings of cheaper housing.
This is where people start feeling stuck – not knowing where to turn and just taking the next step forward on the same path that led them to the crisis point in the first place. There is no easy answer and our assistance is just a portion of what this family needs to really move beyond perpetual crisis.
Focusing on just one piece of the issue only takes care of one part of the problem. It is important to look at the overall situation, take time to figure out small steps that can make positive impacts, and use all the resources at hand to help them move forward.
That is why we work with other providers in the community by focusing a portion of United Way donations towards funding programs that can support families and individuals in many ways – through education, financial stability and health – all year long.
Sometimes we have to look in our neighboring communities for providers with the expertise we need to help with the complex issues of local residents. It is essential that we can offer diverse programs that help with disability services, employment, financial education, child care, tutoring, after school programs, transportation, housing and all the other specialty supports for our families to help improve their most complex situations.
We often choose one cause but it really is the collaboration of many that make the most impact. We really are all in this together and we always have been.
Mary Fuller is United Way’s Bryan County area director. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.