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Challenging year for United Way countered by accomplishments

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Wednesday’s annual meeting of the United Way of Pitt County gave the organization’s board members and community supporters a portion of reality with their lunch — and a taste of the power a united community has to rise above its challenges.

Before keynote speaker and nationally-celebrated South Greenville Elementary School second-grade teacher Michael Bonner uplifted the audience with his formula for successfully nurturing early learners, UWPC Executive Director Jim Cieslar presented the fundraising organization’s year-end review, which included sizeable challenges and achievements.

“The organization underwent significant change because we needed to if we wanted to move forward on our two community goals that all children enter school ready to learn and all youth graduate high school,” Cieslar said. “I am very proud to announce that United Way has faced the challenges of 2016-17 head on and we are now positioned to play an even more significant role in community change here in Pitt County.”

The organization’s signature workplace campaign faced significant obstacles last year, including the distraction caused by the impact of Hurricane Matthew, Cieslar said. 

“Some very difficult decisions will be made by our board of directors following this annual meeting,” he said. “But because of your generous support through The United Way and our partner organizations, thousands of Pitt County residents were helped and thousands of lives were changed.” 

Cieslar quoted portions of a Jan. 1 Daily Reflector editorial that called for more community attention to “the persistently dark problem of poverty ... the root of most of our ills including crime, chronic health problems and an often spotty workforce and economy.”

He said the United Way agrees with the editorial’s point that education is the path out of poverty. “We all win when a child succeeds in school,” Cieslar said.

With community and corporate support in 2016, a group of advocates from county businesses, industries and institutions joined the United Way of Pitt County to form the Early Literacy Coalition of Eastern North Carolina. 

The coalition thus far has enrolled 3,560 Pitt County children in Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library (distributing 33,363 books so far) on its way toward the goal of putting a book a month into the hands of every child in Pitt County from birth to age 5. 

South Greenville teacher Bonner said he deals with the consequences of poverty in his classroom every day.

“I realized something had to change in this class, so I decided to give my students educational equity, providing each one with what they need to be successful,” Bonner said.

He challenged the people of Pitt County who care about their children’s success to also do things differently.

“Get out of your own experience and be sensitive to others’ unique life journey,” he said. “Volunteer at your local school two days a week and support organizations like United Way, financially and with time.”

Outgoing UWPC board chairwoman Marybeth Eason thanked the members and community for allowing her to serve in a way that makes a real difference.

“By being involved with United Way, I feel like I’m helping the education system have every child start kindergarten ready to learn and have a better chance to graduate,” Eason said. 

Through United Way initiatives, like the Student Success Academy, about 1,100 children receive academic support every day, Eason said. With United Way-funded early grade tutoring, children in grades 1-3 received 24,120 hours of tutoring in 2015. After beginning community impact work eight years ago around the local high school dropout rate, which then stood at 54 percent, Pitt County Schools has achieved an 83-percent graduation rate.

Cieslar said he has great faith that in 2017-18, the people of Pitt County will embrace and raise up the United Way’s mission of student success.

“I really feel blessed. This community understands that the United Way is that neutral table where people of differing opinions can come together and work for the good of the whole community,” he said.