Every community is different, and every community deserves to prosper. This is why United Way exists, and why they are so important. No one agrees with this idea more than Chris Wells, the executive director of the United Way of Thurston County. “United Way is an organization with the one goal of making its community as amazing as possible,” says Chris. “We fight for the health, education, and financial stability of every person in Thurston County.” While this is always an admirable goal, the idea of helping the community is not new or original. It is something that happens in Thurston County every day.

What does make United Way unique, however, is its methods toward helping the community. “I have enormous respect for all the work Thurston’s many nonprofit programs and agencies do, but they have to focus specifically on one issue,” Chris explains. “United Way gets to help all the different agencies at once, and do individual work at the same time.” They have the unique disposition of not having to commit to a single issue. Their one goal is to improve the community in whatever way they can. It is no overstatement to say they are doing this tremendously.

How can an organization even begin to make a difference when its mission is so all-encompassing, and its community so wide? Of course, Chris Wells has an answer. “We gather information from our community to see who is not thriving, and what the root cause of that is,” she shares. “From there we develop strategies to prioritize those conditions. We have three distinct focus areas: health, education, and financial stability. We believe these are essential to the success of a community.” The organization has worked in almost every imaginable area of the community with almost every imaginable program in the community: from local food banks to nutrition programs to even school districts. They have even created programs including United Way of Thurston County Education and the Financial Stability Task Force. All to stay true to their mission statement.

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Colleen Minion is another United Way of Thurston County volunteer. Chris Wells, executive director of the United Way of Thurston County says that Thurston is the most giving community she has yet to work in. Photo courtesy: United Way of Thurston County

United Way of Thurston County has always been mightily important, but arguably never more so than now. Even amid a pandemic, they rose to the crisis magnificently. “Our goal now is to shepherd everyone through this successfully,” Chris shares. “We knew from the beginning there were going to be high rates of unemployment, businesses were going to get shut down, people were going to be displaced from work, and kids were going to start learning from home. We acted immediately, and as quickly and effectively as possible.”

The importance of this work simply cannot be stated in words. They managed to act as an immediate source of help before other forms of protection, such as federal involvement, could reach Thurston. They threw themselves into areas they knew would be needed most, such as the food systems, where they became invested in food banks and food kitchens in a time when the amount of produce needed practically doubled. They established the Thurston County COVID-19 Response Fund in partnership with the Community Foundation of South Puget Sound to provide safety nets for community members who had never dealt with poverty before the virus. They worked in everything from shelter programs, nutrition programs, senior programs, and youth support programs to help ease the sudden pang a pandemic can create. And they continue doing this work, tirelessly, relentlessly each day to keep the community afloat. “This is a marathon, not a sprint,” Chris says.

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Two United Way of Thurston County members (Curt Vaniman and Steve Hall) stand side by side as they prepare for a Coronavirus vaccination clinic to open. Photo courtesy: United Way of Thurston County

As United Way continues to help Thurston County deal with the Coronavirus, their latest project has involved partnering with the Thurston County Public Health and Social Services to navigate mass vaccination clinics. This is no easy feat. And yet, Chris gushes over the project, saying it is utterly breathtaking to see the amount of support the community members of Thurston County provide. Since March, the mass vaccination clinics have seen more than 2,000 volunteers! According to Chris, it is reasons exactly like this one that make her a passionate and proud United Way employee. “Working for United Way is like weaving a tapestry,” she says. “Everyone in the community works together to make it better. We get to do so much and so many different things all the time. It is one of a kind. It’s so impactful. I just love it.” One can surmise that Chris’s love for United Way has only grown as she continues to work in the Thurston County community. “People in Thurston County have a culture of giving like I haven’t seen anywhere in my life,” Chris adds. “It’s just part of the fabric of this community.”

It is in the darkest of times when hope is the most important. Chris says the community of Thurston County is what has given her hope. “In a time that has been so dark for so many people, United Way has worked so closely and passionately with all our community leaders and volunteers and nonprofit holders,” she says. “It gives me enormous hope to see how close we are all working together to make a difference. And that’s cause for everyone to have hope.”

Chris encourages everyone in the community to find their place in the tapestry of Thurston County. She highly recommends volunteering for the mass vaccine clinics or donating to the United Way.

The selflessness, hard work, and kindness the United Way of Thurston County has shown to its community has made Thurston County a better place. And they continue to strengthen this community every single day.

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