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United Way committed to helping Erie's safety net: Jim E. Martin

 At the height of the brutal polar vortex in January and February, 55 families across Erie County experienced devastating house fires. This unprecedented number of house fires in just a two-month period disrupted the lives of so many of our friends and neighbors.


In each instance, help was immediately on the scene -- whether it was day or night -- to provide basic emergency services and comfort so families could continue with their lives. Emergency assistance is just one example of the broad range of safety net programs in Erie County funded by United Way, thanks to contributions from individuals and companies in our community.


As chairman of United Way of Erie County's board of directors, I take great pride in this organization's 100-year legacy in the community. I am especially proud that United Way took a stand against poverty in 2012. United Way is mobilizing our community to address and reduce poverty through our Bold Challenge issued in May 2012: Reduce the number of families struggling to meet their basic needs by one-third before 2025.


To do our part, we revised United Way's community impact strategy, with input from volunteer subject-matter experts. We are addressing poverty by strategically focusing our resources -- dollars, volunteers, and partnerships -- on specific, measurable goals in key impact areas that will change community conditions.


At the same time our board recognizes that emergencies and crisis situations can affect any of us at any time -- just like the epidemic of house fires earlier this year. That is why we are reaffirming our commitment to provide safety net resources through our "emergency and basic needs" impact area. These basic services include emergency food, clothing and shelter, including assistance for older adults and those with disabilities; services for victims of domestic violence and other crimes; and services that respond in times of public disasters and other emergencies.
Because these resources are so important to our community, United Way commits almost one-half of our allocated dollars to 24 different emergency and basic needs programs each year. These safety-net resources are delivered by a wide range of agencies, including the Barber National Institute, the Achievement Center, Red Cross, Community Shelter Services, Metro Erie Meals on Wheels, SafeNet, the Salvation Army and the Sight Center of Northwest Pennsylvania, among others. I think it is important to note that United Way has been supporting some of these programs for our entire 100-year history.


As part of our commitment to our donors, we monitor the effectiveness of these programs closely through semiannual performance reports and a thorough annual review. These efforts ensure accountability and fiscal responsibility for each of these vitally important resources.


In 2013, 49,700 Erie County residents were served by our emergency and basic needs programs. This represents almost half of all lives touched by our local United Way each year. Who are these people? Here are some examples:


- 11,104 were older adults who benefited from Life Works' Erie health services for our senior citizens. These services include physician referrals and the popular flu vaccination program each fall.


- 256 were visually impaired Erie County residents who improved their vision -- and lives -- through resources offered by the Sight Center's Blindness and Low Vision Rehabilitation Program.


- 928 were families who were able to put food on the table from the Martin Luther King Jr. Center Social Services Food pantry.


- 855 were victims of sexual assault who became knowledgeable about and coped with assault-related issues through the Crime Victim Center of Erie County's Rape Crisis Intervention Program.


- 450 were families who received safety-net assistance through the local Red Cross Disaster Services, including those impacted by house fires throughout the year.


Today, as we embark on our next 100 years, United Way of Erie County is committed to providing stable, consistent funding for safety-net resources. We've taken this commitment a step further by creating, for the first time, a flexible pool of funds to respond to anticipated and unanticipated community-level needs related to emergency and basic needs.


As a United Way volunteer, I see firsthand the impact United Way has in the community. It's exciting to know that our local United Way has a strategy based on data and research to achieve long-term, transformative results that benefit Erie County residents living in poverty. And, it's reassuring to know that United Way provides safety-net resources for anyone in time of crisis or emergencies.


With continued support from our donors, volunteers and partners, we believe that our combined approach will create an Erie County where we can all learn, work and thrive.


JIM E. MARTIN is Erie region president of Northwest Savings Bank and chairman of United Way of Erie County's board of directors (
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