Weekly INBrief: March 31, 2021

Monday Mar 29th, 2021

April is Volunteer Recognition Month and we at United Way of Erie County are grateful to the hundreds of volunteers who are helping to advance our mission to crush poverty in Erie County.  Thank You! 


Bruce Skolnick, Community Impact Committee

Q. Why do you feel volunteering in your community is important? 

A. Growing up in a working-class neighborhood of a big city, I encountered countless situations that made me feel sad. To counter that feeling, with the permission of my mother, I was attracted to situations where I could help others. My first recollection was an encounter with a Fuller Brush salesperson who was going door-to-door taking orders for the wares that were in his catalog. Their cane, slow gait, and unusual eyes made it near certain that this person was severely visually impaired. The challenge of climbing a dozen steep, concrete steps to get to a pair of homes seemed perilous to me, a gregarious eight-year-old. After my mother declined to make a purchase, I asked the salesperson if they wanted my help, which was accepted. Over the course of an hour, I helped with navigating the steps, made a few introductions, and a few sales were made. I also learned the proper technique of guiding a visually impaired person through a two-level obstacle course. At the end of the block of row homes, which was the end of my free-range, I was thanked profusely. I was left with the amazing feeling that I helped this person facing worrisome challenges, and that feeling was long lasting.

That combination of feelings – sadness paired with well-earned pride gained from accomplishment – propelled me into numerous community service endeavors. Most of these experiences were organized by others such as volunteering as a near-peer reading tutor in elementary school, helping with the at-home physical therapy for a young neighbor with spina bifida when I was a junior high pupil, and in the respiratory therapy department of a hospital when I was a high school student. These formative experiences were most influential when it came time to select a college major, and later, to build a career that centered on helping others through teaching, advising, counseling, and providing support services in a University setting and, in some instances, through paid and volunteer community service.

Now well into my seventh decade (yikes!), there continues to be infinite needs within most communities, Erie County included, and they cannot all be satisfied by compensated individuals, or free-flowing cash. Since relocating to Erie in 1990, with some volunteer experience already under my belt, I have been blessed with the opportunity to directly serve individuals, and to collaborate with others, to maintain and grow existing operations, and to create new initiatives with promising outcomes. Based on informal feedback and more formal evaluative measures, most of these voluntary efforts have been well-received, and have improved the lives of numerous people in the community, and hopefully, future generations. 

On the flip side, volunteer work has been of great value to me personally. In addition to the great feeling that I derive from helping individuals and groups within this community, there are so many benefits for me and other volunteers. The opportunity to meet new people has helped to broaden my professional network, and some of the same people have become close acquaintances and friends. Volunteer engagement has made me more aware of community resources and helped to sharpen critical life skills. My decades of experience as a community volunteer have expanded my awareness and exposure to the wonderful, diverse mix of cultures that reside in Erie County that shares many of the same needs, hopes, dreams, and challenges that I had as a small child in a large urban setting, and that I continue to have as an older adult in this community.

output imChris Zehner  Planned Giving Committee, former YLS, former Resource Development Committee 

Q. Why do you personally feel volunteering in your community is important?

A. I think it is important to give back to Erie.  I grew up here and love this place.  Also, I hope to set a good example for my two daughters and someday they will follow in my footsteps.  It is a small town/world, and we are all connected in one way or another.  When we can help those less fortunate than ourselves, we all win in the end.

Q. Why have you committed so many years of volunteer service to United Way of Erie County?

A. The employees at United Way Erie are extremely dedicated to their mission and it has been great to get to know-all of the people at United Way.  Also, I was fortunate to be involved with the 5th Grade “Adopt a Student” Program at McKinley over a decade ago.  Going out to the school each Fall to deliver free school supplies to the 5th graders has been truly rewarding.  They are genuinely excited to see professionals in the community pulling together to help them out in their studies.  I have also been able to meet other great professionals in the area who are charitably inclined.  Always proud to tell people of my involvement with the United Way of Erie County.

sallieSallie Capotis, Imagination Golf Classic

Q. Why do you personally feel volunteering in your community is important? 

A. My personal beliefs about volunteering in Erie, stems from growing up with loving patient parents and three older role model siblings with the youngest ME, being full of life and much energy that needed direction.  I was blessed to be born into the family that God sent me too! My father was a physician and taught us that not everybody had the same opportunities as many others and to be kind, caring and offer to help when you could.  My volunteering started at a young age going door to door back then collecting change for UNICEF and being in the Girl Scout system selling cookies in the springtime. 

Each time I rang a doorbell or knocked on a door, it taught me about manners, respecting others property, public speaking, organizational skills, finance, and the ability to set goals and follow through with each task. Volunteering taught me in time to be an independent thought provoked woman to teach through example and how to work side by side with others regardless of our differences. It has been through volunteering that I have had opportunities of a lifetime teaching me not to be overwhelmed by the challenge but to have a vision for the outcome. Volunteering over my lifetime allowed for two personal life changing opportunities for the Erie Community. 

First, coordinating for many years our Annual Greek Panegyri Festival which prior to COVID-19 earned the reputation in the Pennsylvania State Chamber of Commerce as the Best Festival to come and visit. It still is a huge success for the Assumption Greek Orthodox Church and the Erie community.   

Secondly, was being a Board Member for Presque Isle Partnership and asked to coordinate for 3 different concert’s Pre-Parties for 2,000 people.  It was so much fun planning the largest parties ever on Presque Isle State Park, but I did not do it alone, I relied on people like me to volunteer.  I needed at least 80 volunteers to help me make it the Best Summer Night.  When I asked for help, they came and supported my vision to accomplish this end goal.  I felt so blessed. 

In the end, my parents were wise to assist in providing an avenue for my extra energy through volunteering.  Through various working situations, it has reinforced the three R’s that I had been learning: Reliability, Responsibility and Respectability.   It means once you develop the quality of reliability, you develop the qualities of responsibility and respectability and with the 3 R’s you can go anywhere in life.

Q. Why have you committed so many years of volunteer service to United Way of Erie County? 

A. This question is probably the easiest to answer. It is Laurie Root, Senior Vice President of the UW of Erie.  A little background… Laurie and I grew up across the street. I am not sure how many people in the world are still blessed with childhood friendships into adulthood.  Well, I can tell you that I am.  We are each other’s longest friendship.  Laurie was moving back to Erie since she had accepted a new job at the United Way. She shared an idea regarding something very dear to her heart… a literacy program for children with a focus on parent involvement. Professionally, I am a speech-language pathologist and the thought of improving literacy in Erie County caught my attention. The initial idea was the start of the Dolly Parton Imagination Library. Laurie asked me if I would coordinate a gala. It was the first time that I had such an opportunity to create with a team of companies she recommended and have a “play on words” from Imagination Library books as the themes.  It was so detailed and exciting. The big night took place at the Bayfront Convention Center which was a huge success considering there were other competing fundraisers that night in Erie, too.  As successful as it was, Laurie was worried that a Gala every year would not withstand the test of time. A team brainstormed about what kind of fundraiser could stand that test of time.  GOLF!!!  Laurie then asked me if I would coordinate on the golf end. Since I had married into a golfing family and learned the game of golf, it was a natural fit and quite easy to set up.   That is when the Imagination Library Golf Classic was born and has been successful every year since 2014.   

You ask me why I volunteer for the UW of Erie County, it because of Laurie’s vision.  Through her initial fundraising idea in 2013, the Imagination Library Program-United Way of Erie County has grown raising approximately $380,000 that sponsored 2,534 children for 5 years each for a total of 152,040 books. We currently have 9,161 children enrolled and 15,421 children have graduated because they tuned 5 years of age and should be starting school.  We are winning the war on childhood literacy in Erie County one book at a time. 

If volunteering my time can assist in making her goals be achieved, I will do whatever it takes for her to fulfill her dreams for the community through the United Way of Erie County.

gwen whiteGwen White, Board of Directors and Chair, Community Impact Committee

Gwen is the 2019 United Way  Alexis de Tocqueville Award Recipient.

Q. Why do you personally feel volunteering in your community is important?

A. I believe we are responsible for each other. We are obligated as part of our humanity to use our talent, energy, and resources to meet the needs of others.

Q. Why have you committed so many years of volunteer service to United Way of Erie County?

A. I’m inspired by the work United Way of Erie County does and how they do it.


DSC 0985 smKatie RuffaChair, Young Leader Society and United Way Board Member

Q. Why do you feel volunteering in your community is important?  

A. In a way, I feel that volunteering is a selfish thing for me to do because I always feel most joyful when I do something for someone else.  It is energizing to see the hope in a person’s eyes when you help make his burden a little lighter or you offer your time to teach or mentor another person.  Volunteering with others is even more impactful because it helps me feel like I am part of something bigger that is truly making a difference.  I think if everyone would take the time to do something for someone else, we would see positive changes in the overall attitude and mental health of our community. 

Q. Why have you committed so many years of volunteer service to United Way of Erie County? 

A. I love that by donating my time and resources to United Way of Erie County, I am part of a very strategic plan to crush poverty in Erie County.  I know that when I volunteer for United Way the outcome of the event or funds raised go toward achieving that overarching goal.  I appreciate the laser-focused efforts to achieve something that no person or organization could do alone. 

Debbie Nageli, United Way's Imagination Library for Erie County

Debbie Nageli

Q. Why do you personally feel volunteering in your community is important?

A. I learned from a very young age to volunteer, giving and caring for others was a part of our family life. My fond memories of helping others continues to drive my desire to volunteer my time to serve. This gives me great satisfaction knowing I can make a difference in the lives of others by giving of my time, teaching, providing services while continuing my support of our community.

Q. Why have you committed so many years of volunteer service to United Way of Erie County?

A. United Way is an organization I believe in for their dedication to our community. I have learned so much about dedication and service to others as a volunteer.

The United Way Imagination Library project was being introduced as I had just retired. My reading background and desire to become involved in improving literacy in the community made this early intervention initiative a perfect match for my interest, skills and ability to help others. This literacy project has enriched my life and provides me with an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of families in our community.

See comparisons on volunteer hours and how COVID impacted volunteerism at the Community Schools


CS Infographic Q1 2020 1


CS Infographic Q1 2021 1

Thank you to departing board chair, David Gibbons

David Gibbons, President, UPMC Hamot was recently recognized by United Way's Board of Directors for his unwavering leadership and commitment to United Way as board chair from 2018-2020. We are thankful for David’s service on the board and his commitment to children and families

About the gift: In 2017 United Way commissioned local artist Marcy Hall for an original piece of art depicting United Way's work in the Erie community. Since then, we have utilized prints of the art as gifts for dedicated volunteers and donors. The print was presented to David virtually during United Way's February 2021 board meeting. 

David Gibbons Departing Board Member Gift v3