Thurston County Media Mission Non-Profit host Andrea Capere sat down with United Way of Thurston County Executive Director, Chris Wells, to discuss what United Way is and how they help with local issues.

Who is United Way?

“I think one of the most common things that people don’t understand about United Way is that we are local,” says Wells. “People think of United Way as a big national or global organization and aren’t really sure about what happens when they make a donation to United Way.”  However, United Way is a local organization, run within our communities to help find ways to improve resident’s lives in what they call a “community-level approach.” They have been active in Thurston County for 82 years Wells adds.

She explains that, “Local United Ways are independent, dues-paying affiliates of our parent organization, United Way Worldwide. Every local United Way pays one percent dues to United Way Worldwide and for that we get a lot of marketing, education, and research in our focus areas of health, education and financial stability. The other 99 percent stays here in the community and serves the people in the community.”

As mentioned, health, education and financial stability are the three areas their mission focuses on in Thurston County.

Local Issues

Wells says the number one response she gets when asked what is the biggest problem or most urgent issue is homelessness. United Way looks at the root causes of homelessness, which she says is the only way we are going to solve the problem. “Homelessness is probably the most visible and distressing symptom of a much more chronic economic sickness with a deep education cure,” Wells explains.

United Way uses research and data to learn what these root causes are, for example the United Way ALICE (Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed) report and the counties point-in-time census of the homelessness. Wells explains they uses these to see how people are doing in Thurston County and what are the factors driving these people to success or failure. This is not just about those at or below the poverty line, but those who are employed and surveying, but are one major crisis away from being in trouble. Wells says 36 percent of the population in Thurston County belongs to this group.

Of those that are homelessness, a large number are families with children, a number that jumped from 7 percent in 2017 to 38 percent in 2018. “When we say we have households with children who are in homelessness, we’re talking about people who are still working and who are still are earning incomes, but they can’t afford to live here,” Wells shares. “That’s really an economic issue.” She adds that 50 percent of our workforce is making $15 an hour or less. “So, we have an economic issue in workforce development that in order for us to have an economy that’s stable and that’s flourishing, we really have to take a look at the jobs that are available in Thurston County today and what are the jobs of tomorrow – where do we have big opportunities for success?” Wells explains.

Aside from jobs, Wells mentions that the raise in cost of housing and lack of inventory is a byproduct of those who work in Seattle coming down to Pierce and Thurston County to live, as the homes are more affordable. “We have not been able to produce housing at a rate that is going to accommodate that out-of-town growth and that purchaser,” Wells explains, “and compete here with people who don’t earn the kind of money people are earning in Seattle and now all the rents are being driven up, the inventory is suppressed, the cost to buy a house is much higher, and development can’t keep pace. So there are a lot of things that factor into this ballooning crisis.”

She says this is something we need to respond to now, by again, giving the people who live in Thurston County better wages so they can afford these homes, and anticipate the incoming population growth.

Finally, Wells mentions that education needs to be more focused on job preparation, especially for those students who do not go onto to college or may not even finish high school. And, even those that go on to college, graduate with massive amounts of debt and cannot find jobs. “How are we using those high school years to really prepare kids, some of those kids are going to want to pursue further academia, that’s fantastic,” Wells says, “They we need a high school diploma that is preparing them to go on and pursue an advanced degree. But, how are we identifying skill and abilities in students who don’t necessarily want to college? What are doing to identify opportunities for those students and how are we imagining the different paths to high school graduation and what that means.”

Wells says that maybe the second two years should be real, meaningful technical education and career development that allows kids to either be prepared to continue their education or to go immediately into workforce.

United Way is not a direct service provider, they are a fundraiser. So, the 99 percent that goes back into the community, does so in the form of grants to local non-profits that are doing direct services in Thurston County.

To learn more about United Way and the work they do in the community, watch the full video and visit the United Way of Thurston County website.

To learn more about Mission Non-Profit, who connects monthly with local organizations and agencies that are making positive impacts in our communities, visit the Thuston Community Media YouTube channel, visit the TC Media website and follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

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