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United Way and creating a safety net
Guest columnist

By Mary Fuller

Since United Way was founded as the Community Chest in 1938, we have focused on helping in times of crisis. In response to the Great Depression, a group of community members collected their money to help in the midst of an overwhelming national crisis. This work is the foundation of what we do. All other efforts are built on first getting families and individuals to a place where they are able to address the more complex issues that impact their success and sustainability. This means working through all types of crises from health, shelter, food, or finances to violence and natural disasters.

This last year served as a shining example of how United Way pulls people together to ensure our neighbors don’t fall behind. As the pandemic started to impact our coastal communities, United Way took money from our Disaster Relief fund and seeded the COVID-19 Rapid Response fund. Then we focused our efforts on raising funds through every means possible, spreading a wider net and raising over $675,000 from 832 business and individual donors. That money helped bridge the gap for families, businesses and communities as they were trying to respond to the effects of COVID. This fund helped households affected financially by COVID pay rent, mortgage, utilities, and childcare. It supported school systems across our four-county region to get every child prepared to learn virtually with equipment and internet services as needed. It funded essential PPE and adaptations for the safety net services provided by funded agencies so they could meet community need within the federal and local restrictions forced by the pandemic.

United Way’s COVID Rapid Response fund was used to try to meet the unique, ever-changing needs of each of our communities as we experienced the impact of COVID on our everyday life. In addition to these relief efforts, United Way participated in each of our local county efforts to respond and recover by participating in collaborative calls and meetings addressing emerging issues created by COVID. Those issues included safety in shelters, business, childcare and school closures, and safety measures to preserve public health.

During this time, United Way saw calls for help quadruple and we were contacted by many who have never needed this type of support in the past. But United Way was built for this.

And as our communities recover from the impacts of the pandemic, United Way is looking toward the future. Through our strategic planning process, we continue our commitment to the most vulnerable in our community with an emphasis on basic needs such as food, shelter, health, and safety in addition to community disaster response.

In Bryan County, United Way fulfills this commitment in many ways. We have a number of food pantries serving our communities, including ELEOS and Way Station in south Bryan and Plentiful Pantry in north Bryan.

Throughout the year, we work closely with each of these pantries directing food donations to them and ensuring partnerships to receive food from America’s Second Harvest.

Throughout the year, we support numerous mobile food pantries on both ends of the county and provide food through our county office to supplement the food available through our regular pantries when necessary.

One of the most essential roles that our Bryan County Service Center plays is helping to connect individuals and families in need to the resources that will help meet those needs. Most times, when we receive a call, the caller is experiencing a crisis and believes they have already used all their resources in an effort to solve their problem. We are here to help them identify other resources, make necessary connections, and find ways to help prevent the crisis from happening again.

Sometimes we are able to provide financial assistance to help stabilize their situation. In 2020, outside of the COVID Rapid Response funds that helped 63 local households, the Bryan County office assisted 44 families with housing or utility assistance. Most times, much more is needed to help them build the skills and gain the resources to prevent further problems. This is why it is so important to get them connected to other providers who can provide more specialized support to help get them on track for a successful future.

Through the United Way’s funded agencies, many safety net services are provided directly to Bryan County residents. These services include emergency food, healthcare including primary care and screenings, family and domestic violence shelters, counseling, senior support, and prescription cost savings.

These local programs help United Way wrap around families and individuals to get them to a point where they can face the more complicated issues that may stand in the way of their upward mobility.

United Way was created to offer help in times of crisis and struggles. We are here to ensure that the services and resources needed

to overcome a crisis are there for our communities; and if they are not, fill the gap or find a way to fill the gap. Sometimes this takes time; it takes pulling in experts and forming partnerships to find creative solutions to complicated problems. And in these times, United Way plays the role of convener and problem-solver so that each person can find pathways beyond living paycheck to paycheck or one crisis away from devastation. This is the historical core of United Way of the Coastal Empire’s mission to improve lives. And we cannot do it without you, the community. United Way is the community supporting itself. It is all of us supporting each other. Together, we work to make our community the best place to live, work and raise families.

Mary Fuller is United Way’s Bryan County Area Director. She can be contacted at

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