For more than a century, United Way of Greater Cleveland has been at the forefront of helping residents in Cuyahoga County — as well as those in Geauga, Darke and Ross counties — break the cycle of poverty. The organization is a proven leader when it comes to mobilizing people and resources to create solutions designed to improve the lives of the communities it serves.
“We’re known for helping people in crisis,” says Maryam Kiefer, United Way of Greater Cleveland’s director of public policy, who leads advocacy initiatives at all legislative levels. “But in order to really help them, you need to also be able to see whatever the root causes of those crises are and whether or not there are any strategies that can be put in place so they don’t continue on in perpetuity.”
As the world turns and slowly emerges from the pandemic, a host of new challenges has risen that also need United Way’s navigation expertise.
Since it launched a decade ago, United Way’s 2-1-1 Help Center has provided free and confidential 24-hour access to professional advisers who help callers review their options for assistance and develop a tailor-made plan for them. The guides also serve as advocates for eliminating barriers to service.
COVID-19 led to the three-digit phone number becoming a lifeline to residents who never imagined needing to rely on it. Kiefer estimates that the help center received 200,000 calls last year alone.
“Suddenly, businesses were shutting down, people were losing their jobs and facing eviction and food insecurity,” she says. “Others were searching for child care options.”
When vaccines became available, callers who didn’t have access to the internet or Wi-Fi relied on 2-1-1- personnel to help them schedule vaccination appointments.
That dose of reality also increased United Way’s dedication to devoting significant time and energy to proactively lead and bring visibility to health-equity policies; engage with nonprofits to collaborate and collectively support common policy priorities; and monitor issues that align with United Way’s priorities by signing joint letters and communicating with public officials.
When lawmakers in the state legislature were debating whether or not to eliminate the Step Up to Quality Program, Kiefer and her team campaigned to keep it. The five-star rating and improvement system administered by the Ohio Department of Education and the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services promotes learning and development in publicly funded child care programs that meet quality standards. United Way of Greater Cleveland’s efforts ensured the rating system, based on national research identifying standards that lead to improved outcomes for children, remains in effect.
“It’s a challenge for many child care providers to earn these stars,” Kiefer says. “But if the star ratings were not in place, it would be much more difficult for Ohio families and parents to determine how qualified the child care provider they select really is.”
United Way of Greater Cleveland has also taken a leading role in offering input on where the dollars Cleveland and Cuyahoga and Geauga counties received as part of the American Rescue Plan should be spent. The economic stimulus package, which was passed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden in 2021, was created to help communities respond, recover, reimagine and rebuild in the wake of COVID-19.
“We’re closely tracking where the money is going and encourage investment in valuable resources, such as our 2-1-1 program,” Kiefer says. “We’re also advocating all levels of government to effectively invest these funds into programs that address the variety of issues we work on, including housing, homelessness, access to quality health care and economic mobility.”
Kiefer echoes United Way of Greater Cleveland’s affirmation that the journey to economic prosperity begins at the schoolhouse door, but too many children cross that threshold unprepared for kindergarten. To compound the problem, adults without college degrees often find themselves working low-wage jobs with limited earning potential.
As a step toward allaying that all-too-common occurrence, United Way is spearheading the creation of the Louise C. Stokes Scholar House. Named in honor of the mother or the late Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes and the late Ohio Congressman Louis Stokes, the 40-unit apartment complex is set to open next fall.
The project is funded by a low income housing tax credit award from the Ohio Housing Finance Agency. Other funders include the city of Cleveland, which committed $1.2 million dollars for construction. Located at 2551 Community College Avenue, within walking distance of Cuyahoga Community College’s downtown campus and Cleveland State University, the building features a five-star day care, a computer lab, common space for parenting classes and a children’s play area.
Cleveland State University and Cuyahoga Community College will offer life skills classes and academic counseling for first-generation college students, and United Way of Greater Cleveland and CHN Housing Partners will coordinate wraparound services, including mental health counseling and financial literacy tutorials.
As it has since 1900, United Way of Greater Cleveland continues to keep a finger on the pulse of Greater Cleveland. The organization’s Community Conversations series of public forums centers on relevant news-making topics. Last year’s series of public programming — launched in partnership with the Cleveland NAACP — focused on the Cleveland Consent Decree that’s meant to enact sweeping changes in the way the Cleveland Police Department interacts with the community. This year, the subject was Voting Rights, Redistricting and Impact on Voter Turnout, co-presented with the YWCA of Greater Cleveland.
“The time has come to truly address long-term issues that are affecting our society,” Kiefer says. “We need to make sure the policies we have aren’t broken or ineffective so that it won’t be more difficult for people to obtain what they need to lead fulfilling lives.”