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Leaner United Way of McLean County focusing on new youth initiatives
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Leaner United Way of McLean County focusing on new youth initiatives

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Stephanie McClellan, left, a United Way of McLean County volunteer, and Heartland Community College student Mazainie Davis, right, listen to other students who, like Davis, are participants in United Way's Workforce180 program. The program this year is mentoring and assisting six Heartland students, including Davis, who are first-generation, low-income college students who wish to become certified nursing assistants.

BLOOMINGTON — United Way of McLean County 2.0 is in full swing.

Gone are the days of massive fall workplace campaigns that raised millions of dollars distributed among dozens of programs operated by a variety of McLean County human services agencies.

That ended in recent years as many workplaces transitioned from United Way campaigns to other employee-giving models and as several businesses in McLean County closed and downsized.

A leaner United Way is investing smaller amounts of donated money — from a few remaining workplace campaigns and other giving and fundraising — in new initiatives that benefit youth and families.

As some peoples' giving priorities shifted from United Way to specific issues, United Way changed its investments from supporting many programs to focusing on youth school readiness, behavioral health and workforce development, United Way President David Taylor said.

"We are and still will continue to raise money to invest in our community, especially for youth and families at risk," Taylor told The Pantagraph. "We see our role as a community convener."

In November 2018, United Way announced 180 United, the agency's 2019 focus on youth and families in response to the 17 confirmed shooting incidents in the Twin Cities up to that point last year.

Human services programs that traditionally received money from United Way have received none since June 30, prompting Heartland Head StartCenter for Human Services and Western Avenue Community Center to make changes this year.

United Way is investing in new initiatives, including The Breakfast Club, an innovative monthly Saturday mentoring program for youth in partnership with several organizations, including Boys & Girls Club of Bloomington-Normal. A new round of the club will be launched soon, Taylor said.

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Sierra Fields, 20, left, and Daja Lambert, 22, right, discuss how their studies are going and work on homework during a Workforce180 meeting at Heartland Community College. The Heartland students, who are low-income Bloomington-Normal residents, want to become certified nursing assistants and the program is addressing financial barriers that arise for the students.

The core programs for 180 United are Workforce180 and the Adolescent Intensive Outpatient Service.

United Way has invested $300,000, collected prior to March 1, for the adolescent outpatient service, Workforce180 and The Breakfast Club, Taylor said.

United Way continues to raise money for its 2020 initiatives regarding school readiness, behavioral health and workforce development and has raised $650,000 since March 1, Taylor said.

Decisions on how that will be invested will be made by United Way's community investment committee in 2020, Taylor said.

Workforce180's goal is to create self-sufficiency by providing opportunities for at-risk youth by linking them to resources and addressing obstacles as they pursue their career path, Taylor said.

Workforce180 kicked off in June. It involves volunteers from Women United working with six Heartland Community College students who have experienced hardship and are involved with Project Oz's employment program and wish to transition to Heartland's certified nursing assistant program in January, explained Project Oz Employment Coach Megan Ruffin.

Volunteers, including Women United Chair Stephanie McClellan, meet with the students monthly, encouraging them and working with them to identify barriers. United Way addresses those barriers, such as money for tuition, books, technology, tutoring and transportation to class.

"It's been fantastic," Ruffin said. "These are first-generation college students and they are learning from each other and growing."

"It's definitely meant a sisterhood for us," said student Sierra Fields, 20, who also works as a third-shift, in-home caregiver and wants to become a registered nurse. "We've learned about ourselves and others. We've learned to use resources. For me, it is a second chance. I couldn't see myself going back to school. But God had other plans."

"This initiative has pushed me to believe in myself," said student Daja Lambert, 22, a mother of two children who wants to become an emergency medical technician.

"It's made me want to do more," said student Mazainie Davis, 22, who wants to become a licensed practical nurse.

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Discussing United Way of McLean County's new focus on youth and their families following a presentation on Nov. 9, 2018, are, from left, United Way President David Taylor, Boys & Girls Club of Bloomington-Normal CEO Tony Morstatter, then-United Way Board Chair-Elect Phani Aytam, United Way consultant Kathleen Lorenz and City Life Bloomington Ministry Director Andrew Held.

While the program is helping low-income students on a career path, it hopes to provide the community with more CNAs.

"At its core, Workforce180 is creating hope," McClellan said.

The adolescent outpatient service would be for youth ages 13 to 18 at risk of psychiatric hospitalization or transitioning out of psychiatric hospitalization, Trisha Malott, the county's behavioral health coordinating council supervisor, has explained.

She hopes to begin the service during the first quarter of 2020 and intends to serve 10 to 20 people at that time.

"I know how critical that teen timeframe is and we need to address programs that help teens in crisis," Taylor said. "The adolescent outpatient center is a good step for that."

Contact Paul Swiech at 309-820-3275. Follow him on Twitter: @pg_swiech.

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