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Refusing to disappear: Abuse victim overcomes the darkness of mental illness to become a shining light

“United Way, by funding an organization like Magnolia Clubhouse, is so important because everybody needs help and everybody needs support.”

Refusing to disappear: Abuse victim overcomes the darkness of mental illness to become a shining light

“United Way, by funding an organization like Magnolia Clubhouse, is so important because everybody needs help and everybody needs support. And we want as many people as possible to be able to benefit and change their lives.”

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In her darkest moments, Lakecia Wild thought the only way to escape the anguish would be to simply disappear.

And by ‘disappear’, a struggling young girl meant an act of finality that claims the lives of far too many people with mental illness.

“I had thought about not being here anymore. Just ending it,” remembered Lakecia. “I had these tapes in my head of all these negative things about myself. I was sexually abused, so I felt like it was my fault.”

Lakecia suffered abuse during her early years in foster care. The trauma caused debilitating clinical depression, anxiety, OCD and PTSD—a daunting combination of mental health problems that invited ongoing thoughts of suicide long after she was adopted by a wonderful mother at age seven.

Now 27, she’s eager to share the story of her transformation. It’s a trajectory that led from despair, to cautious hope, and finally, to a special program that allowed her to blossom into a confident, independent woman with a fulfilling job and plans to earn a college degree.

Lakecia credits Magnolia Clubhouse and its funding partner, United Way of Greater Cleveland, with lighting a path others seemed convinced she would never find.

A 12-year-old hits rock bottom

The thought of anyone reaching their rock-bottom moment is heartbreaking. It’s almost incomprehensible to imagine falling into that hole as a 5th grader.

Lakecia’s depression had grown severe. She was self-harming and experiencing deeper isolation as an intense paranoia set in.

“I always thought people were trying to hurt me or kill me, so it was very hard to trust people. Even though I wanted help, it was hard to open up and say, ‘this happened and I need help,’” she said.

Though her childhood was littered with fragmented memories, the full magnitude of the abuse didn’t strike Lakecia until a social services expert made a presentation at her elementary school.

“We had somebody come into the school and talk about how to recognize sexual abuse, or abuse, in your home. And that’s when it hit me,” she recalled.

It hit with devastating effect. The 12-year-old decided she would run away from home. Worse, she thought about leaving this world entirely.

“It was after school and I was out until very late in the night. And I was literally just lying in a creek, and this was in the winter time, just wishing that I wasn’t there anymore. I didn’t try to end it all, but I was just hoping that it would.”

Fortunately, she returned home that night, wet and hypothermic, and was soon hospitalized in a psychiatric unit. The deeper awareness of the abuse she had endured in her foster home, combined with recurring thoughts of suicide, led to a long series of hospitalizations over the next few years. Despite working with a wide variety of mental health professionals, Lakecia recalls feeling a resistance to the help she knew she needed.

She does not share names, but Lakecia certainly remembers more than one medical practitioner stating that her options in life would be seriously limited by her mental illness.

“Doctors told me that I wouldn’t work. I wouldn’t be living on my own,” she said. “I just needed to come to grips with either living in a group home setting or something more structured, and I didn’t like that idea,” she said.

It wasn’t the future she envisioned. But there seemed to be no other option.

Magnolia House Campus - Cleveland, Ohio
Used with permission from Magnolia Clubhouse

Around age 18, Lakecia began to take treatment more seriously and remembers a therapist suggesting it was time to try ‘something different’. That ‘something different’ was a unique program called Magnolia Clubhouse.

“I was very nervous and unsure of what to expect. But when I walked though the doors I just saw a community. And everybody was so happy and so lively and they were so welcoming. It was just a wonderful feeling,” she exclaimed.

Soon, staff members were talking about ideas Lakecia never heard during her hospital stays.

“The Clubhouse was saying you have a right to do something that you love and that you enjoy,” she recalled. “So I said I like to do office type work. I like reception. I like helping people. They said we see in you an ability to be able to work. And I started thinking, well okay, if they see that, I definitely want to try because they just make you want to try and do better.”

The transformation

Magnolia Clubhouse gave Lakecia, for the first time in her adult life, an opportunity to demonstrate that she had the intelligence and talent to make a valuable contribution as a productive member of the workforce.

The Clubhouse operates out of two renovated mansions in Cleveland’s University Circle neighborhood, offering a program based on the belief that meaningful work and a sense of community are integral to mental health.

Clients are referred to as members. They work side-by-side with staff in the daily operation of the Clubhouse, sharing responsibility for tasks such as staffing the front desk, cooking daily lunches, working in the resale shop or maintaining the grounds. Lakecia Wild - Magnolia Clubhouse Cleveland, Ohio

Lakecia’s self-confidence grew as she developed office skills by answering phones, greeting people and performing data entry.

“I started being able to get out of my shell…’Hello, how are you doing?’ It doesn’t sound like much, but when you’re coming out of depression, it gave me a purpose,” she said.

A Clubhouse support program for members who want to find outside employment helped Lakecia leverage her marketable skills into a job with the ADAMHS Board of Cuyahoga County. She’s been working three days a week for the past year-and-a-half.

“I knew I could do it. I just needed the right support,” Lakecia said.

Magnolia Clubhouse Executive Director Dr. Lori D’Angelo has closely followed Lakecia’s transformation and growth.

“Lakecia has made striking progress. Not only is she no longer being hospitalized, she is working in a job she enjoys, and she is a leader at the Clubhouse.” D’Angelo said proudly. “Lakecia is more confident, and it is a joy to see her smile, her humor and her strength.”

The next goal for Lakecia is to earn a college degree. She’s participating in another Clubhouse support program that assists members who would like to finish high school or attend college.

“Without Magnolia Clubhouse I wouldn’t be who I am today. They have changed my life.”

The impact on individual lives and the community

Mental illness is prevalent throughout our community and takes a tremendous emotional, physical and economic toll on individuals and families. It’s estimated one-in-four people lives with mental illness, with one-in-17 of those cases considered severe. Sadly, less than half of adults dealing with mental health problems get treatment.

Lakecia Wild - Magnolia Clubhouse Cleveland, OhioSuicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S. and disproportionately effects the mentally ill. More than 90-percent of those who take their own life suffer from mental illness.

Treatment options like Magnolia Clubhouse save lives and help reduce the economic impact on society.

“I know that Clubhouse works because I was in and out of the hospital a few times a month. And that costs a lot of money,” Lakecia points out. “By coming to Clubhouse, I know that I can come here every day of the year, and it costs a lot less.”

Clubhouse staff point out that one year in their program can cost less than two days in the hospital.

According to the agency, Clubhouse members are five times more likely to find employment and enjoy longer job tenure and higher pay than others who live with mental illness.

“The community at large benefits from the ability of each of its members to reach their full potential,” said D’Angelo, who emphasizes that not adequately meeting the needs of those with mental health issues comes with unacceptably steep human and financial costs.

“Not treating or minimally treating mental illness results in people dying sooner, and having increased use of hospitals and crisis services. Without services, those living with mental illness are less likely to be employed or to achieve educational goals, and they are most likely to live in isolation and despair,” she said.

Lakecia has experienced that isolation and despair. She realizes how close she came in the past to ‘disappearing’ under the crushing weight of her mental health problems.

That’s why she will keep speaking out about her struggle and victory. She also praises the support United Way of Greater Cleveland has provided over the years.

“United Way, by funding an organization like Magnolia Clubhouse, is so important because everybody needs help and everybody needs support,” Lakecia emphasized. “And we want as many people as possible to be able to benefit and change their lives.”

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Reflections on the Evolution of United Way 2-1-1

United Way’s 2-1-1 Help Center is a vital safety net that provides free, compassionate and expert assistance to anybody in need of health and human services. 2-1-1 Community Navigators answer calls 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to develop a plan of action and make referrals for our clients.

The month of February, which includes the significant celebratory date of 2-11, affords an opportunity to help you understand more about how United Way 2-1-1 solves problems and builds stronger communities.

United Way 2-1-1 Director Diane Gatto shares her thoughts in this article.

Looking back over a 20-plus year career with United Way 2-1-1, I think about its evolution and its purpose. Who has it helped and how far do we still have to go?

What United Way 2-1-1 is all about

At its core, 2-1-1 exists to help people. Everyone at some point in their lives needs a little support, information and options. It’s easy to take a great family or support system for granted. It’s tempting to think accessing help is simple and barriers to service don’t exist.

Each day at 2-1-1 we hear very personal stories from people whose lives are complicated, who genuinely desire to make their lives better, and who struggle to connect with the services they need. The situations that drive people to ask for help – illness, job loss, or just living on very little day after day – could happen to anyone. A simple event or policy shift could impact your world instantly.

“Our goal is to make them feel just a little bit better, supported, understood. To give hope where we can.”

I’ve watched our staff respond to foreclosures and floods. I’ve watched them guide distressed clients through changes in health care and public benefits. I’ve seen how upheavals and disruptions in government services that might go unnoticed, like the elimination of Disability Financial Assistance, are brought to light through the stories of our clients and the savviness of our staff.

It takes talented people to understand these changes and to help people devise solutions. You have to make an instant connection, build rapport and earn trust. You must demonstrate knowledge. You must treat people with dignity and without judgment. You must recognize they took the right step by contacting you and that they should not feel ashamed. Your goal is to make them feel just a little bit better, supported and understood. To give hope where you can.

Compassionate, dedicated experts make it happen

United Way Cleveland 211 Office

Our staff deserves to be celebrated. Whether responding directly to clients, conducting research, generating reports, managing, coordinating, scheduling, delivering presentations, performing quality assurance or managing telephone and data systems – all of that comes together for the same purpose: to help the client.

We want to see systems improve for people. Our staff wants to lend their voice to say, “it would be great to have a food pantry in this eastside neighborhood on a Saturday afternoon.” We have the ability to be the advocates for expanded transportation options or greater rent assistance for people who become ill and no longer able to work. We can harness that collective voice for the betterment of our community and those in need.

The evolution of 2-1-1 must involve sharing more of what we learn. Getting out into the community more. Closing the loop to ensure people get the services they need.

During this month of celebrating 2-1-1, I have high hopes for a system that continues to serve individuals well and helps to better coordinate our social service delivery system, improving access and care.

Thank you to our staff and to everyone who has supported 2-1-1 all these years. Count on us to be there, with compassionate hearts and determination, to help our clients overcome obstacles and move forward with their lives.

About Diane Gatto

United Way 2-1-1 Diane GattoDiane holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science from Cleveland State University and a Master of Science in Social Administration from Case Western Reserve University. She has completed post-graduate coursework in Library Science, Computer Science and Law.

She is currently employed as 2-1-1 Director for United Way of Greater Cleveland and has 20 years of experience in social services, data management and operations. Under Diane’s leadership, 2-1-1 has more than doubled its staff and geographic footprint – now providing service for 26 counties, with a staff of 80 and a budget of more than $3 million.

Diane recently (2017) conceptualized and co-authored a $4.5 million federal grant to embed 2-1-1 in hospitals and health centers, helping to address the social needs of Medicare and Medicaid patients.


Bold stage drama showcases power of the arts to help battle poverty

How to End Poverty in 90 Minutes - United Way & Cleveland Public Theatre
It was clear that this wasn’t going to be a typical night at the theater.

This was apparent when the entire cast stepped into the audience, passed out $1,000 in cash, and asked every person in the crowd to choose how to best spend that money in the fight against poverty.

Certainly not when the plot demands audience members passionately express their deeply held opinions about the problem with strangers in the next row.

But a show entitled “How to End Poverty in 90 Minutes” reveals, by name alone, its monumental ambition. This aspiration is precisely why United Way of Greater Cleveland decided to help bring the nationally acclaimed production to Northeast Ohio.

“This innovative play challenges common assumptions about the faces of poverty and how people fall into desperate circumstances,” said August Napoli, president and CEO of United Way of Greater Cleveland. “We wanted to shatter those stereotypes and strip away preconceived notions, and I think this powerful production does just that.”

“Those of us who have had a lot of opportunity in our lives don’t even think about how the basic things that we take for granted are enormous challenges for people in poverty.”

– August Napoli, president & CEO, United Way of Greater Cleveland

United Way sponsored last month’s six-performance run of “How to End Poverty in 90 Minutes” at Cleveland Public Theatre after Executive Artistic Director Raymond Bobgan proposed the two organizations collaborate on the venture.

“For a long time I’ve been wanting to bring this play to Cleveland but I couldn’t quite figure out the right partners,” said Bobgan. “And it was just so exciting to have United Way of Greater Cleveland step up.”

All shows sold out, including a matinee reserved exclusively for local high school students from a variety of schools in the community.

What is the play about?

How to End Poverty in 90 Minutes Cleveland, Ohio
Bobby Bermea*+ and audience members in discussion. Photo by Steve Wagner. *Actor appears courtesy of Actors’ Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States. + Sojourn Theatre Artists

The production unfolded in a fast-paced fusion of traditional and non-traditional theatrical elements, mostly on stage, but sometimes moving into the audience.

Among the most powerful scenes are vignettes in which actors portray everyday people struggling with hunger, low wages, racism and violent crime. Other jarring moments played out in just a few searing lines of debate between characters.

Interpretive dances and a musical number became tactics to creatively examine common notions about poverty. One of these notions included the long-held American ideal that it’s more admirable to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” instead of asking for help.

One scene transformed the theater into a social-activism quiz show, with audience members asked to stand front-and-center while answering multiple-choice questions about the demographics of poverty. The information appears on large video screens, while the crowd shouts out suggestions.

At other points throughout the performance, backstage interviews with special guests were broadcast live onto the screens.

What does the play do to help people?

The crux of “How to End Poverty in 90 Minutes” is the climactic decision the audience is asked to make at the finale of every show. They are asked to vote on how to best allocate $1,000 from ticket sales and United Way-support to combat local poverty.

The money must be directed toward one of five anti-poverty strategies: daily needs, making opportunities, system change, education or direct aid. A United Way-funded agency within the randomly selected winning category received the donation.

Cast members steered the decision-making process by leaving the stage to interact with their designated audience sections. The performers served as town-hall discussion leaders, encouraging lively conversations about priorities and the best way to help others, urging audience members to keep in mind what they may have learned throughout the show.

“We are not so arrogant as to decide for the people where they should contribute,” Napoli pointed out. “Our job is to show the impact, make the case, and then get out of the way.”

United Way of Greater Cleveland Board Chairman Marc Byrnes attended opening night and is confident the project will have a lasting impact.

How to End Poverty in 90 Minutes -- Sojourn Theatre Artists.
Jono Eiland, Alejandro Tey+, Sara Sawicki, Ananias J. Dixon, Bobby Bermea*+, Wes Allen, Nik Zaleski, Cathleen O’Malley, Tim Keo. Photo by Steve Wagner. *Actor appears courtesy of Actors’Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States. + Sojourn Theatre Artists.

“Leveraging the arts to share a critical social issue as pressing as poverty is an incredibly exciting way to expand beyond our workplace campaign,” Byrnes said. “We believe this play will motivate people throughout our community to have a productive dialogue and become more active in overcoming the increasing barriers poverty has on so many individuals and families in Cuyahoga County.”

The show’s full title is “How to End Poverty in 90 Minutes (with 119 people you may or may not know).”

It was conceived by Sojourn Theatre’s Michael Rohd, who took a break from his professorship at Arizona State University to direct the production in Ohio.

“Cleveland is a logical stop because it is an incredible American city with history of greatness and challenge, like many other American cities,” explained Rohd, who expressed gratitude to United Way for sponsoring the play and to Cleveland Public Theatre for extending the invitation to have it produced here.

What’s next?

United Way leaders are eager to further explore ways to collaborate with arts organizations to generate more awareness, volunteerism and philanthropy in the battle against poverty.

“People have been talking about the intersection of the arts and social justice to transform lives and communities for a long time,” Napoli said. “It’s important to move beyond simply talking about it – and this collaboration is actually doing it – and breaking ground.”


America’s true beauty through diversity

United Black Fund of Greater Cleveland

By Cecil Lipscomb, executive director, United Black Fund of Greater Cleveland

“We the people” … three words with so much depth.

At its core, the phrase is collaborative, creates anticipation, implies power and acknowledges humanity. As we settle into Northeast Ohio’s crisp February weather, let us also settle into the significance of February being Black History Month; and in that context, “We the people.”

This is a month set apart to acknowledge the richness of African and African-American citizens shaping the United States of America and Canada. America’s true beauty is present in its diversity of season, landscape, culture and people. It is in this spirit that we would like to acknowledge the 30-plus years of collective work between United Way of Greater Cleveland and the United Black Fund of Greater Cleveland (UBF) to improve the quality of life for African Americans in Greater Cleveland.

What is the United Black Fund of Greater Cleveland

Established in 1981, the UBF was created by the late Judge George White and a host of concerned community leaders to assist and empower Clevelanders in some of our most challenged communities.  He modeled the organization after Dr. Calvin Rolark’s United Black Fund of America in Washington, DC.

Within a few years, Judge White and UBF’s staff were working collaboratively with United Way of Greater Cleveland to address issues of poverty and began breaking down barriers to success in the African American community. Ruby Terry, UBF’s longtime Executive Director, chaired United Way committees, worked with other United Way Federated Partners and coordinated joint community work.

Since 1984, United Way has provided an estimated $19 million that has benefitted African American-led and governed organizations doing exceptional work in Northeast Ohio’s diverse communities. This powerful effort, with the strong support of United Way, has helped ensure resources are provided to thousands of qualified nonprofits, influencing tens of thousands of people in our region.

Making an impact in our community

United Black Fund of Greater ClevelandIn this new era of social service delivery and philanthropic impact models, both United Way and the United Black Fund maintain an unwavering commitment to our collaborative work in Cleveland’s African American community.

For example, investing in workforce development efforts is a necessary beginning at the school level. Thanks to a host of partners, including United Way of Greater Cleveland, PNC, and the Ohio Department of Education, UBF initiated a computer-coding curriculum at Richmond Heights Schools for grades 5 – 12. This program makes use of mentors and enables students to learn not only the basics of coding, but robotics, project management and life development skills. We are mentoring with the purpose of preparing our children for next generation-level careers.

“We the people” … as we celebrate Black History Month in Cleveland, let us not only reflect on the contributions made by generations of African Americans throughout history, but let us also applaud the milestones that continue to be made due to the great work of our many nonprofits and sponsors throughout Greater Cleveland. They are the people and organizations who ensure that we continue to fight the disparities, inequalities and injustices that still linger.   

About Cecil Lipscomb

Cecil Lipscomb - United Black Fund of Greater Cleveland (Headshot)-WEBCecil Lipscomb is the Executive Director of the United Black Fund of Greater Cleveland, Inc. (UBF).  Founded in 1981, United Black Fund of Greater Cleveland (UBF) is a charitable organization that provides financial (grants) and technical support to neighborhood-based organizations offering a full range of health and human service programs for the residents of Cleveland’s African American and lower-income communities.  Prior to this, Mr. Lipscomb was Senior Director of Institutes at Cleveland Clinic and worked as Director of Fundraising for Case Western Reserve University’s School of Engineering. Before 2004, he worked in commercial and government sales, management, and marketing in the telecommunications sector for 10 years with two Fortune 100 companies who eventually merged to create Verizon.

He currently serves as 2nd Vice Chair, Board of Directors at Eliza Bryant Village. Eliza Bryant Village is the oldest continually operating African American long-term care facility in the United States.  He also serves on the Friends of Breakthrough Schools Board, which is the highest-performing network of free, public charter schools in Ohio.

Mr. Lipscomb received his undergraduate degree from Ursuline College, his MBA from Weatherhead School of Management, and certificate of nonprofit management from Mandel Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Case Western Reserve University.

Myths, questions and concerns about nonprofits

United Way of Greater Cleveland Kid SuperheroesA nonprofit organization is like a complex machine. There are numerous moving parts that all must come together for this machine to run smoothly. From hiring accountable and passionate people that follow necessary processes and procedures to fundraising and allocating funds to the highest performing and impactful agencies and programs, each part must move in harmony together.

Sometimes those moving parts do not always move in the proper sequence though. That could be an individual’s action that doesn’t adhere to accountable and transparent processes and procedures. This single occurrence can negatively affect the organization’s reputation in the community.

That one instance can change public perception for years to come, making people question the nonprofit and its ability to do good in the community. This is a question of ethical and moral philanthropy and honest activism.

So, what constitutes being a fair, transparent, equitable and impactful nonprofit in a time of public distrust in nonprofit practices? And how do you find the nonprofit that’s right for you?

Elements of trust for a nonprofit

There are many factors that must be strictly followed to ensure a nonprofit organization is successful – making the greatest impact on the people it serves and causes it supports. Some of the most important factors that should be considered include:

  • Disclosing 990 forms when major organizational changes occur, such as leadership hires, funding model changes and detailed donation reports
  • Sharing organizational financial reports with the public, revealing details of funding that go to programs, services and agencies, as well as percentages to internal operating costs
  • Keeping the public well-informed on the status of its mission and goals and what has been, and needs to be, done to meet those promises

According to a 2016 article in The Times Herald, “An organization should make its financial health, board members and mission results available for anyone who asks.”

Steps to ensure you’re giving to a reputable nonprofit

United Way of Greater Cleveland and Rape Crisis Center presentationWith countless nonprofits to choose from, it’s extremely important that a prospective donor or volunteer become well-informed when choosing a nonprofit. You may or may not already know the cause or issue you want to support. Maybe you just want to give back in general and don’t know where to begin.

The following characteristics and traits can help you determine the most appropriate, accountable and impactful nonprofit to support:

  • Has a clear mission and vision they follow and one that aligns with your beliefs and ambitions
  • Are financially sound and have a history of fiscally responsible practices in the community
  • Is respected and recognized throughout the community and by the people it serves
  • Can mobilize and bring people and other organizations together to achieve success and address pressing issues in the community

Remember, identifying the nonprofit that best aligns with your philanthropic passions is an important part of giving back to your community. These steps will get you started on your charitable journey and arm you with the information to make the right decisions.

This article was originally published on by United Way of Greater Cleveland. Read the original article here.

Coping with mental illness: moving clients from “survive” to “thrive”

Magnolia House Campus - Cleveland, Ohio
Used with permission from Magnolia Clubhouse
Through a compassionate blend of mental health services, employment training and friendship, Magnolia Clubhouse – a United Way-funded partner – empowers clients to achieve healthier and happier lives.

They see daily success in the accomplishments of Clubhouse members who are gaining stability and greater independence in the supportive environment of their unique center on University Circle.

Adults who have experienced limitations because of their mental-health issues work in close partnership with staff to develop marketable job skills that lead to gainful employment opportunities both there at the Clubhouse and throughout the community.

“Doctors had told me I wouldn’t be able to work. But by coming to the Clubhouse I said people here are just like me. They’re working. So I’m going to try,” said Lakecia, client and now employed as a result of help from the Clubhouse. “Without the clubhouse, I just wouldn’t have been able to sustain…”

They guide members in furthering their education by making measurable progress toward attaining a GED or attending college. Valuable life-skills are cultivated through our onsite programs that include: financial management, food service, horticulture, writing and video production.

Magnolia Clubhouse medical staff ensures members have access to the primary care and psychiatric services they need.

What they do works. Data shows Magnolia Clubhouse clients have higher rates of employment and lower rates of hospitalization and incarceration. They also report a decrease in the frequency and intensity of symptoms.

“The really great thing about being here at Magnolia Clubhouse is we’re all a family. I feel like I’ve got 75 brothers and sisters. It’s just a wonderful place to be,” said William, a Magnolia Clubhouse member.

Please watch the video below to better understand the difference they make in the lives of Magnolia House members:

Volunteer Views Profile

Our “Volunteer Views” series seeks to share United Way of Greater Cleveland’s partners who generously give their time and talent through the gift of volunteerism. Their continuous work helps make our community a greater place to live, work and play. This month we are featuring Gary Poth, executive managing director, head of Key Family Wealth.

Questions and Answers

How did you get involved with volunteering early on in life?
I learned the importance of helping others from an early age by serving in my church and also the gratification that comes from caring for others. In my adult life, I became more deeply involved in serving others when my career brought me back to Cleveland about 10 years ago.

Since then, I have been fortunate to serve on the board of several nonprofits. I love helping people and working with organizations that have the heart to help others. It’s very fulfilling for me to help organizations like United Way. I am currently serving on the boards of the Cleveland Sight Center; Cleveland Institute of Music; Community Partner Arts and Culture; and the Holden Arboretum.

Why did you choose to volunteer with United Way of Greater Cleveland?
United Way is a great organization with a stellar reputation and, because of the fundraising capacity, United Way has the single biggest impact on our community. As a member of the KeyBank team, I am fortunate to be part of an organization that has always been a strong supporter of United Way and places a premium on employees giving back to the community.

Over the last several years, I have had the pleasure of co-chairing United Way’s Humanitarian Society along with Kelly Tompkins of Cleveland Cliffs. The generous members of the Humanitarian Society makes up about 20 percent of all giving to United Way.

What are some causes/issues that resonate with you? If so, what is it and why?
As someone who was the first person to attend college in my family, I know firsthand the doors that are opened from a solid education and how it can break the cycle of poverty. In far too many of our neighborhoods, we still have capable and talented children that never realize their potential because of the lack of a good education.
What are your personal and professional aspirations for the people of our region and our communities we live and serve in?
We’re on a good trajectory here in Cleveland. To continue that momentum, we need to be able to retain our best and brightest talent. Cleveland has always been a great place to live and raise a family, but we are making it a great place to have a career as well.

There is a real entrepreneurial spirit here with new companies now popping up every day. Our ability to sustain this momentum ties back to making sure that we have an educational system that provides our young people with the skills required for a successful career.

For those looking to possibly volunteer their time in an age where we’re all so incredibly busy, what would you say to those who may be on the fence about volunteering?
The old adage that “It’s better to give than receive” is so true. The personal fulfillment one gets from helping others is tremendous and well worth the costs. In addition to the personal satisfaction of helping others, volunteering connects you to other leaders throughout our community that share your passions expanding your professional network, which can have an enormous impact on your career.
Gary Poth
Executive Managing Director, Head of Key Family Wealth
Gary Poth, Key Family Wealth
One of the oldest and largest family offices in the country, serving roughly 500 of KeyBank’s largest families across the country and managing $12 billion in investments.

Learn more about volunteer opportunities at United Way of Greater Cleveland.


Getting the most out of your tax return

By Kathy Matthews, senior program director with Enterprise Community Partners

VITA and EITC Tax Relief for People in NeedEvery year, millions of hardworking taxpayers fail to benefit from getting the most out of their taxes. It’s a given that tax time isn’t a time of year people look forward to, but why not make sure you get as much money back as possible?

One great way to ensure you keep more of what you earn is to take advantage of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), a refundable tax credit for low-and-moderate-income taxpayers. It helps millions of Americans get a larger tax refund to pay for things like reliable transportation to and from work, adequate and safe housing and putting healthy meals on the table.

Nationwide during 2017, more than 25.8 million eligible workers and families received about $63.8 billion in EITC refunds, with an average amount of $2,470. The EITC is one of the nation’s largest and most effective anti-poverty programs, lifting millions of families out of poverty each year.

The Cuyahoga EITC Coalition supported by Cuyahoga County Job & Family Services, United Way of Greater Cleveland, the IRS, many financial institutions, and hundreds of volunteers, help people claim the EITC at tax time. Just last year, the Coalition and its partners, through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program and, helped connect more than 5,000 people in Cuyahoga County to roughly $7 million in EITC tax refunds – money coming right back into our community and being spent at local businesses. This ultimately bolsters our local economy and makes our community an even greater place to call home.

“The EITC and the Child Tax Credit (CTC) can make a real difference for workers who are struggling to make ends meet,” said Diane Gatto, director of United Way 2-1-1.

Free tax prep services for you

Beginning, January 20, 2018, the Cuyahoga EITC Coalition is offering free tax preparation services to working families at 21 tax sites throughout Cuyahoga County. Because workers move into and out of eligibility based on changes in their marital, parental and financial status, millions of workers will qualify for the EITC for the first time this year, making awareness of this important tax credit critical. At a VITA site, individuals can get free help determining their EITC and CTC eligibility and claiming these important tax credits.

EITC Awareness Day tax events

The Coalition is raising awareness of these services by hosting an EITC Awareness Day event on January 26 at Gordon Square from 1:30 p.m. – 8 p.m. There are also several Super Saturday events scheduled with:

  • CHN Housing Partners, hosted by St. Ignatius High School and sponsored by Key Bank on February 3
  • Neighborhood Housing Services of Greater Cleveland, hosted by Cleveland Central Catholic High School and sponsored by Third Federal Savings & Loan on February 10
  • Notre Dame College, sponsored by Ohio Savings Bank, a division of New York Community Bank on February 17

Join us and take part in EITC Awareness Day to learn how you can get more out of your tax return. We also hope you will advocate expanding the EITC for those roughly 7.5 million Americans who are ineligible, who are actually taxed into poverty as a result.

Are you eligible?

To check your eligibility for the EITC, visit To find a VITA site near you or schedule an appointment, dial 2-1-1 or visit to learn more.

About Kathy Matthews

Kathy Matthews - Enterprise CoalitionKathy Matthews, a Senior Program Director with Enterprise Community Partners, has led the Cuyahoga EITC Coalition for the last twelve years.  Ms. Matthews is well versed in the administration and operation of Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) sites and provides oversight for 400+ IRS certified volunteers and 25 VITA locations. Since its inception in 2005, the Coalition has prepared over 107,000 income tax returns resulting in $144M refunds for low and moderate-income families living in Cuyahoga County.

Prior to joining Enterprise, Ms. Matthews has over 18 years of corporate work experience in the financial industry in Cleveland and Chicago. During her corporate tenure, she held various leadership roles within the retail, commercial, and client services business units. Her experiences include several management positions along with time spent leading corporate-wide, diverse, revenue generating and expense reduction initiatives.

Ms. Matthews has a bachelor’s degree in English and Psychology from John Carroll University.  Ms. Matthews is a founding member of OutRun Ovarian Cancer (OROC) – a volunteer-driven, nonprofit organization dedicated to raising ovarian cancer awareness and money for research and education. She also dedicates her volunteer time in support of several schools located throughout the Cleveland area and most recently, served as a volunteer for Catholic Charities Migration and Refugee Services.

Setting the stage for servant leadership

Peter Orozco - National Urban Fellow - United Way of Greater ClevelandBy Peter Orozco, National Urban Fellow, Community Impact at United Way of Greater Cleveland

I still remember the night my life changed, leading me down a new path and sculpting me into the person I would become. It was my first semester at New Jersey City University, training to be a classical musician. There were many hurdles that I had not anticipated, especially since I was the first in my family to go to college. I did not have context from family members as to what to expect. And being a type 1 diabetic only compounded the situation and my anxiety. These new academic challenges and the struggles of coming into adulthood became overwhelming, which had a negative impact on my diabetes care.

My blood sugar numbers were skyrocketing, distracting me from doing the good work that would make me a successful musician. One night in December, while trying to control my condition, I accidentally overdosed on insulin. That night, I slipped into a diabetic coma.

I was out for a day-and-a-half before the paramedics stuck an IV in my arm to wake me. After a long recovery in the hospital—which consisted of counseling from therapist and nurses on learning to cope with diabetes, I was forced to drop out of school and subsequently lost my health insurance.  Suddenly, I was working just so I could afford the price of insulin.

Capitalizing on a surprise opportunity

Five months later, I received a letter to join a leadership program on campus. It was the first time I had been invited to something like this, and I was excited to be considered for such a great opportunity. The caveat: I could only participate if I was a student.

Peter Orozco - National Urban Fellow (NUF) with other fellows in New York - United WayI knew this was a fantastic opportunity, so I saved up enough to pay for one class the following semester, and immediately joined the program. The leadership program was my first networking experience. In this group, supported by students and faculty, a plan was devised to help me fill out financial aid forms and sign up for Medicaid. With the guidance of this connected network of students and staff, I received health insurance and re-enrolled in school on fully funded Federal Pell grants.

I eventually became the student president of this leadership program and I graduated with honors.

My experiences with the power of networks and leadership education inspired me to build a career in public service. This inspiration eventually led me to the National Urban Fellowship (NUF). NUF is a rigorous 14-month, full-time graduate degree program culminating in a master’s degree in Public Administration.

As part of the program, Fellows are sent to cities around the country to work in different communities on a variety of issues. In the process, we learn about leadership and community development through mentorships with top leaders in the public sector. One of those opportunities was with the United Way of Greater Cleveland.

Giving back through valuable public service

Our cohort had the chance to hear President and CEO, Augie A. Napoli, and Vice President of Strategic Programs & Knowledge, Sylvia Pérez Cash, share with us the opportunities with United Way of Greater Cleveland. Under the leadership of the new executive team, a mission was implemented to change United Way’s approach to social service. This was certainly an approach and organization I became immediately interested in. They spoke of this mission and a new opportunity for a NUF fellow to work in the Community Impact department with Vice President of Community Impact and General Counsel, Helen Forbes Fields and Associate Vice President Nancy Mendez.

Given my experiences participating in and leading a network in college, I was eager to contribute to United Way – especially the organization’s new Community Hub Model of funding allocations to social services agencies in the region. The Community Hub Model will enable United Way to enhance its strength as the convener of social solutions in Greater Cleveland. I then met with Augie and Sylvia and learned about their leadership styles and their aspirations for Greater Cleveland and the United Way, which fully solidified my desire to help make a difference.

Reflecting on my time at United Way

My experience to date has exceeded my expectations. I’m currently working on three different projects: restarting and enhancing the Youth Fund Distribution Committee alongside An’Tuan Williams; organizing the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District Community Assessment with guidance from Andrew Katusin; and writing my graduate capstone on the development of the Hub Model.

The Community Impact team is very passionate about what they do. Guidance and advice from the whole team—An’Tuan, Andrew, Kara, Jenn, Darlene, Wanda, Matt, Ben Miladin, Ben Jones, Jamie, Nancy, and Helen—has made me feel very much part of the team.

The best way to learn about leadership is experiencing it in action. Augie has been exemplary in demonstrating leadership in action and has made himself available to teach the National Urban Fellows what it takes to lead. The executive team, directors and staff walk the same line.

All of the executives, Assistant Vice President of Community Impact Nancy, directors and staff such as John, Joyce, Deborah, and everyone in the Community Impact Department have given their time to engage and teach the National Urban Fellows about leadership.

Board Members, such as Marc Byrnes and Zulma Zabala, have demonstrated their passion and inspired us to continue sharpening our expertise and leadership skills. During my time here at United Way of Greater Cleveland, I’m being trained to be the next generation of systems thinkers and servant-leaders. In the future, I hope to continue my work in community assessments, become an expert in collective impact and call Cleveland my new home.

About the National Urban Fellows

National Urban Fellows develops accomplished and courageous professionals of all ethnic and racial backgrounds, particularly people of color and women, to be leaders and change agents in the public and nonprofit sectors, with a strong commitment to social justice and equity.

Causes you care about: Creating a lasting impact

United Way of Greater Cleveland Planned GivingWith the holidays in full swing, many of us pause to look inward and explore fundamental questions about our place in the world. Have I achieved what I’ve set out to do in my life? Is my family happy? Am I true to my friends? Have I done enough to make a difference?

After all, as Winston Churchill said, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” In fact, we give because it makes us feel good.

The Greater Cleveland community has seen tremendous growth and progress, and our donors’ generosity has echoed this success. Yet there are still many residents who struggle to meet their most basic daily needs to survive.

More than 58,000 households in Greater Cleveland are living in poverty.

Cuyahoga County is home to over 245,000 food-insecure people, making it the state’s largest population of people facing food insecurity.

In the City of Cleveland, 66 percent of adults are functionally illiterate. Four-out-of-five fourth graders from low-income families fail to read at a proficient level.*

Can you effect change?

We must preserve and protect our ability to continue to combat these systemic challenges that face so many in our community. One of the most powerful ways to make sure we continue to effect positive change into the future is to include United Way of Greater Cleveland in your will or estate plan.

The prospect of legacy (or estate) planning can be intimidating. You may think you need to have considerable assets to be able to make a gift. The truth is quite different. Many donors contribute and make gifts to the within the limits of their financial ability and life circumstances. But, even with the many barriers we face, many people still give because they believe it is the right thing to do.

Above all else, it is a chance to create a lasting legacy that is a passionate expression of their values beliefs. It is an expression of their most deeply rooted philanthropic spirit; one that can influence others to make the same commitment.

There are quite a few tangible benefits to legacy gifts too: they require no cash outlay and can lower taxes or offer an income for life.

When is the right time to act?

United Way of Greater Cleveland Planned GivingThere is no such thing as being too young to think about creating a will. In fact, making your intentions known, or confirmed now, can ensure you establish a solid estate plan and shape how you want to be remembered through causes and issues you care about.

Whether your calling is making education a right for all; fighting endemic poverty; reducing violence; funding resources to address physical and mental health; or striking barriers that cause chronic unemployment – you can affect real change. Countless families, friends, colleagues and neighbors depend on you.

If you’ve considered making a charitable gift in your will, please contact us directly for a confidential conversation. Our Director of Principal Gifts, Maureen Horton, can help you identify smart giving opportunities that fit your current and future needs. Please contact her at or by phone at 216-436-2193.

*Data from “United Way of Greater Cleveland 2017 Community Assessment