Guest post by Southern Wesleyan University interns Lyndy Barnes and Kayla Eison
I had just started my first week as an intern at United Way of Pickens County (UWPC); Kayla and I barely knew each other, but there was this urgency to tell her everything I loved about this organization that I had only been a part of for a few days. From there, we were both caught in this beautiful web that is the non-profit world.
Graduation is less than two weeks away, and we’re both looking back over the past few months wondering how exactly we should put into words what United Way of Pickens County now means to us. Though words will always fall short, here are a few things we’ve learned because of United Way of Pickens County.
1. At the foundation of a good non-profit, you will always find trust and accountability.
It all makes sense, in theory, that no organization or relationship can function at its full potential without some level of trust and accountability. But can we be completely honest? To practically live out this concept in a world where deception and hidden agendas lurk around every corner is different than simply coming to an agreement that trust and accountability are absolute necessities.
We have had the privilege of sitting in on several council meetings for each of UWPC’s Impact Areas. After a meeting one day, we discussed how incredible it was to listen to their discussions and think about how each council member contributed something unique to the organization. They each have different stories, careers, talents, and traits; without a doubt, one thing they have in common is that they care about this community, and they dedicate their time, talent, and skill to see it heal and thrive.
The very purpose of each council is to assure that UWPC is making decisions that are relevant to their goals and that produce beneficial outcomes. They are not afraid to speak up, and they certainly have the “heart and smarts” to have those conversations. These councils play a role in establishing integrity and character at United Way of Pickens County.
2. When entering a new city, finding a community that you genuinely want to be a part of is essential to producing a healthy environment.
Communities thrive with engagement and enthusiasm. Picture completing a project with people that live around you, showing no interest and not having the same end goal. It’s important to find likeminded people in your community that desire to see change happen and create newer opportunities. For us, this concept was reiterated by our interactions with staff, networking organizations, and volunteers.
Each staff member of UWPC’s team pours their heart into their work. They not only love to see the community grow and thrive, but they like to see their volunteers thrive, as well. In every staff meeting that we’ve attended, everyone exhibits a bubbling excitement to discuss their impact/successes (and failures) and find more innovative ideas to press forward.
Of course, we would be crazy not to mention the impact that volunteers and AmeriCorps members have had on how we view community. In the words of Ruth Stafford Peale, who challenged her readers and herself in her writings, “Find a need and fill it.” It’s astounding how volunteers at United Way seem to live with this motto and how contagious their attitudes are.
We came up with a catchy (okay, maybe slightly dramatic) phrase that says “AmeriCorps… Where superheroes are labored.” (You can find more about the AmeriCorps program here, and you might find that you agree with our little saying.) There are six AmeriCorps members at United Way of Pickens County, and their heart to serve is incredible. We’ve seen them in action; we’ve heard them tell warm stories about clients and say, “…and that’s why I do what I do.”
They each have different stories and backgrounds, but it seems that they all share one heart to love this community.
3. More than anything, people need to feel empowered.
Time and resources can go a very long way. Yet, if empowerment isn’t at the heart of it all, have we really made a lasting impact? In 2011 Robert D. Lupton, founder and president of Focused Community Strategies, published his book Toxic Charity. He provides a slightly controversial idea that perhaps charity, even with good intentions, can hurt people more than it helps. The common denominator for almost every community or individual that was hurt? The organizations and individuals who were serving those in need, although they thought they were doing the right thing, were failing to place empowerment at the core of everything they did. Lupton writes, “Doing for rather than doing with those in need is the norm.”
One of the first things we were given in the office was a sheet of UWPC’s “Impact Goals.” Looking at the sheet, we realized that these goals aren’t vague. They aren’t just surface-level phrases thrown on a page to make the organization look catchy. The individuals that United Way of Pickens County serves are not merely seen as people who need (fill in the blank here); they are seen as people of worth—people with real thoughts, feelings, and stories. Just like all of humanity, they are deserving and in need of empowerment. Examples of Impact Goals include phrases like, “Young children achieve their academic potential,” and “Barriers to job training, employment, and education are decreased.” (See the full list of Impact Goals here.) To us, their mission is parallel to this concept of not just doing for, but walking alongside and doing with those in need.
We wanted to publish this article because we believe these things to be true, not because we were hired or tasked to just say a few bright and shiny things about the organization. We believe in what United Way of Pickens County is doing for and alongside of the community, and we could not be more thankful for what this small glimpse has taught us about ourselves and the world around us.