Op-Ed

The United Way of Miami-Dade continues to grow to meet the community’s needs

Members of the United Way Young Leaders initiiative help children with a gardening project.
Members of the United Way Young Leaders initiiative help children with a gardening project. United Way of Miami-Dade

It is said that experience is the best teacher. This is certainly true for what has been an incredible year — one full of transition, discovery, inspiration and dedication.

Some might think leading a nonprofit was quite a departure from my career path but, in many ways, this is a natural progression. More than a decade of spearheading corporate social responsibility and employee engagement programs in the private sector gave me a unique insight into our community — as did volunteer leadership roles with the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, Beacon Council’s One Community One Goal and other key nonprofits. Among them was United Way of Miami-Dade, where I led a team of volunteers who helped restructure the organization’s grant making, adopting a strategic, collective impact approach.

These experiences fostered strong relationships with business, community and civic leaders as well as nonprofits, ultimately preparing me for this place and time. Today, as we launch our United Way 2018-19 campaign, I want to share some of our accomplishments of the past year. They underscore the transformative role community organizations play in addressing needs and our responsibilities as stakeholders in helping create vibrant communities and local economies.

My introduction into this role was a bit stormy. As I embarked on my fifth week, a Category 5 hurricane threatened our shores. For 232 consecutive hours before, during and after the storm, our United Way team staffed two critical seats at Miami-Dade County’s Emergency Operations Center, coordinating volunteers and resources as part of relief and recovery efforts. In total, we received and distributed more than $6 million in hurricane recovery grants throughout the affected areas.

Among the lessons learned from the hurricane is the added toll these events take on our most vulnerable citizens — our ALICE families, hardworking neighbors identified as Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed by a United Way study. They earn more than the federal poverty level, yet are forced to make tough financial trade-offs to make ends meet.

With six of 10 households in Miami-Dade living either in or on the edge of poverty, losing a week’s worth of groceries or work can propel them into a downward spiral. This reinforced the reality that our community and economy cannot succeed if hardworking families cannot thrive and reaffirmed why we must continue to fight for the education, financial stability and health of every person. We serve and advocate for these families, each and every day. We invest in 119 quality programs at 62 local nonprofits, collaborate with dozens more and provide direct services to create pathways to economic mobility, elevate the quality of early education and increase access to healthcare.

To ensure our neighbors improve their economic well-being, we funded nearly $3 million in programs that help manage debt, build savings and improve job and soft skills. We opened a third United Way Center for Financial Stability site to expand access to financial coaching, tax services and more.

To empower children of all ages, we invested nearly $19 million in early and school-aged education programs focused on preparing young children to enter school ready to learn and supporting students to succeed academically and graduate on time.

We sought innovative partnerships as part of our $3.7 million health portfolio to address critical gaps — from mental healthcare to access to specialists via a telemedicine platform. Working alongside local, state and national advocacy partners, we scored policy wins for children and families, increasing accountability in early education programs and expanding access to free tax services for working families.

We released the findings of a new poll indicating voter support for older adult issues, and continue to explore policies and practices for a more age-friendly community. We also launched our exciting Inspire305 initiative to identify innovative nonprofits and further engage our volunteers and supporters digitally. All the while, we remained watchful stewards of our donors’ trust, receiving Charity Navigator’s 4- star ranking — its highest — which speaks to our financial health and governance.

I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished, working in tandem with a remarkable team of talented United Way professionals, an army of committed and passionate volunteers and the most dedicated and caring nonprofit partners. I am honored to continue down the trail Harve A. Mogul blazed and excited to pave new paths that lift our impact to even greater heights. Each victory reaffirms there’s much to do to secure a more prosperous future for all our residents.

To those who want to join the fight for a stronger Miami, contact us at caring@unitedwaymiami.org. And to all the hand-raisers and problem-solvers who join us in our work — thank you..

Maria C. Alonso is president and CEO of the United Way of Miami-Dade.

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