Mesa United Way on front lines of pandemic help The Mesa Tribune | The Hometown Newspaper for the city of Mesa, AZ

Mesa United Way on front lines of pandemic help

January 13th, 2021 Mesa Tribune Staff
Mesa United Way on front lines of pandemic help

By Melody Birkett
Tribune Contributor

While many non-profits were scrambling to find new ways to do outreach when the pandemic hit, Mesa United Way was already one step ahead.

Three years ago, the organization started reinventing itself and finding a new way of reaching the community and putting more emphasis on helping foster children.

“The idea used to be you would do the workplace campaigns, put together community groups to review contracts with the non-profits and then allocate those dollars to non-profits,” said Mark Young, President/CEO Mesa United Way, adding that all United Ways have changed significantly over the last 15 years. 

“It’s been really tough for us this year because there are not very many companies that want us to come to do a campaign. So, we’ve created a lot of electronic ways to do that but it doesn’t have anywhere near the impact as being able to meet people face-to-face.”

In a smaller community like Mesa, Young said United Way found itself competing with the same agencies it was giving money to.

“It didn’t make a lot of sense,” Young said. “With everybody having an internet presence, with everybody having their own development team, people don’t need that middle group to decide where the money needs to go.”

For those who do donate to Mesa United Way, Young said, “I think we may be one of the only United Ways in the country that does that without an admin fee. So, if you send $500 and you designate it to a specific organization, we send $500.”

“One of the things we try to encourage is if you want to give to several organizations, you write one check, tell us how you want it divided up and we’ll get it to all of those places.”

Contributors can also let United Way choose where to allocate the money.

“We try to support a lot of the smaller non-profits that just can’t get their hands on money,” said Young. “They do it mostly with volunteers so we can help provide them with some money and direction.”

One way Mesa United Way has changed over the years involves foster care, which led to helping veterans and developing literacy and other programs while still working with partner agencies in the community.

One program is Helen’s Hope Chest, which Mesa United Way founded in 2009 to provide basic needs to foster children and the families caring for them.

The program started as a small patchwork of volunteers working from two rooms in the back of a church. Helen’s Hope Chest now serves upwards of 900 children per month. 

Getting volunteers has been another challenge during the pandemic.

“That’s been a problem primarily for Helen’s Hope Chest,” explained Young. “We use a lot of volunteers over there and in our Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program. Almost all of those are mature folks. Early on in the pandemic, I didn’t want to be in a position – when we didn’t know what was going on – of putting the most susceptible people on the front lines.

“So, we stopped a lot of that. And as the pandemic has gone on, those folks are really hesitant, understandably, despite really strict health guidelines. It’s just been hard. We primarily rely on our mature folks to help us out in volunteer areas and we’ve had some struggles with that.”

The Mesa Veterans Resource Center continues to provide employment training and placement, mental and physical health counseling, and other services to about 250 veterans each month.

During the summer, Mesa United Way hosted drive-through book drives and worked with Arizona Brainfood, providing meals for kids on weekends.   

“When school stopped in March, that became a problem,” Young said. “We worked all summer long getting food into the hands of those families through an AmeriCorps program called Mesa Youth Unite,” Mesa United Way’s summer AmeriCorps program for young adults between the ages of 18 and 25.

“We did a drive-in with Helen’s Hope Chest,” added Young. “We do this big thing called JaKelle’s Christmas box where foster families can come and shop for free for their kids or their foster kids. We usually do that at a church and serve 3,000 people in a week so it’s just jammed packed in there with folks. We did all of that outside over the course of two weeks.”

Young is concerned about what’s going to happen once people start getting evicted and don’t have any place to live, who’ve never been homeless.

In March, Mesa United Way established a COVID-19 Emergency Assistance Fund supported by individual and corporate donors.

The funds were used to bolster the emergency hotel stay program for those experiencing homelessness and supply some PPE to partner agencies.

In the few months that followed, Mesa United Way hosted two virtual Zoom parties with games, musical performances and raffle prizes along with a virtual 5K called the “Home Run 5K,” in which more than 200 people signed up to complete a 5K using at-home workout equipment, walking, and even kayaking to support the agencies work with people at risk of losing their homes.

“This last year has been really problematic,” Young said. “For a lot of people, once we get to the vaccine and schools reopen, it’s going to feel really normal to them. There’s going to be a lot of pain and suffering coming down the pike for people who haven’t been able to pay rent, who’ve lost their jobs.

“We can’t forget the human need once we get past this virus thing. We’re not done dealing with this…Kids are struggling. Teachers are struggling.” 

He added that many people are standing in long lines for the first time to get food. “That’s not going to get better at the same time we’re finishing up with COVID.”

“We’ve raised some of our own money,” said Young. “We use that primarily for housing, rental assistance and utility assistance and some medical emergency stuff.  We have a partnership with the City of Mesa where they granted us some CARES dollars. We spend that on a local hotel and then we hook-up homeless families with Community Bridges and put them in a hotel until they can find permanent housing.”

Mesa United Way’s 12Books literacy program has continued working with Mesa’s Title-I schools to provide students in grades 1-3 with books and is also in the process of piloting and launching a virtual reading tutoring program.

“Phase 1 was getting some kids from the foster care families we work with and hooked them up with staff people,” said Young. “We did about 10 of those and ran that for about 6 weeks. That worked really well. And then we partnered in Phase 2 with Mesa business San Tan Bear and did another round. That also went very well.

“So, we’re looking to launch that in a much larger way. It allows people to volunteer without being face-to-face with anybody. And it’s amazingly helpful for kids just to have somebody that will read with them. There are programs like this out there but they are super expensive. So, we figured out a way to do it virtually for nothing.”

Other plans for 2021 include opening up a campus with condos in downtown Phoenix for aging out foster kids, many of who have nowhere to go when they turn 18. The goal is to tackle the homelessness issue with this population. Young said, “Many end up on the streets, prostituting, self-medicating… Houseparents, navigators will help them put their life back together.”

Young encourages anyone with the financial means to donate to their favorite charity and/or to donate their $600 stimulus check. 

Information:, 480-969-8601.

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