Fresno State & United Way Partnership
United Way Interview with CEO Lindsay Callahan
By Frédéric Martin, Editor-in-Chief
As businesses were closing early on the last Friday of 2018, Lindsay Callahan, CEO of the non-profit United Way for Fresno and Madera Counties granted us an interview to discuss the many facets of the deep involvement and accumulated successes of its contributions into our local communities. Although a household name, the United Way’s ongoing programs are not well known, probably because they vary greatly, depending on the community needs they satisfy in its 1,300+ worldwide active chapters. Founded in the late 1800s in Denver, CO, United Way’s Fresno office is 100 years old and thriving. Our conversation focused on the programs in place in Madera and how United Way has woven its successful practice into the fabric of our community.
Lindsay Callahan was hired about three years ago as President and CEO for the Fresno and Madera Counties franchise of United Way. Madera county was included into Fresno’s area of management a few months prior to her joining the team. The worldwide organization’s sole mission is to improve communities along three main vectors: education, health, and financial stability. The Fresno/Madera United Way office has been more specifically focused on helping struggling working families, many of which reside in the Madera area. Besides providing access to lower cost options for common services, such as reduced internet access fees and energy bills, available to disadvantaged families through corporate programs, United Way facilitates access to donated services including free tax filing, Covered California registration support, and much more assistance available through its free and confidential 211 call centers. United Way constantly strives to go beyond helping to stabilize the economic viability of the families it serves, but also to provide guidance and support to elevate their goals and devise successful paths towards financial independence.
Education is a fundamental ingredient of, what Lindsay Callahan calls, the success continuum, in the equation that can eventually create financial and social stability for the people United Way serves, braiding the many aspects, skills, knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, and aptitudes of one’s life into a solid and reliable path towards independence, confidence, financial and personal success. For many years, United Way has handed out backpacks to Fresno students, to help disadvantaged children who could least afford school supplies. In 2017, however, United Way joined forces with Fresno State with an even more ambitious program. Instead of just handing out school supplies, the joint effort, called “lt’s More Than Just a Backpack” program was designed to work with a specific school in the Madera Unified School District, with a message of establishing a relationship with the disadvantaged students. Each of the 500 gifted high-end backpacks contained a letter written specifically to 7th grade students at Madera’s Martin Luther King middle school. Fresno State President Castro wrote and signed the letter, informing the students that, by joining the program, they would be considered for a full-ride Fresno State scholarship opportunity once they graduate from a Madera high school. The message to MLK’s 7th graders is that our community cares about its children and that we collectively believe anyone can make it to college and beyond. To be entered into the scholarship running, the students must submit an essay, every single year, until they graduate, and must also demonstrate a real commitment to their personal growth and education. At the end of the first year, all 500 original recipients of the backpacks, and of the President’s letter, submitted their individual essay. To the surprise of the students, the letters were not only read and evaluated, but an army of community members took the time to review the letters. Comments and constructive feedback were included onto each of the documents and returned to each student to show the real care and dedication from the board of the United Way, some of the United Way sponsors, including a local branch of Bank of America, members of Mrs. Castro’s book club, and even the President of the University himself. The essays were returned to the MLK students during the Fall semester of 2018. To further monitor the success and process of the program, United Way multiplies its interactions with the MLK students, via events such as the year end Food Frenzy Day, with donations of gifts from the community; United Way also engages with the parents through other ongoing support programs. MUSD and United Way are working out the details to effectively monitor the students’ academic progress once they have left middle school and joined one of the Madera high schools.
The Parent Resource Centers program is also deeply involved with United Way as one of its best sponsors, with a complete array of service offerings that help buttress parent involvement and empower families to help their children succeed in their academic career. Currently the 211 call center program is being developed for a potential launch in Madera county —pending board approval —but, until it is fully implemented and tested, the 866-559-4211 number can be used to access information on community resources. Through a United Way partnership with the Madera Workforce Development Board, free tax preparation and filing services have yielded an average of $2,500 tax return for the participating parents, which means more disposable income in their pocket. Last year, United way processed about 8,000 free tax returns. Contact Workforce Investment Board at 559-490-7100 for schedule information on the upcoming availability of that service in Madera.
Another United Way cooperation centers around the Youth Leadership Institute (YLI) program that was recently launched in Madera. The MUSD, city of Madera, and United Way partnership is alive and well. Working with a school district is ideal because the educational institution is helping to drive youth engagement to an unprecedented level. The Youth Leadership program has yielded engagement with the food bank, and community cleanup programs, thereby empowering youth to know they can have a direct hand in bettering their community. Student advocacy councils are in place in both Madera high schools and, a first in the Youth Leadership Institute program, the schools have instituted the advocacy councils as part of the curriculum. This program will also extend to Matilda Torres High School when it opens in 2020. This deliberate involvement of students in their community is the ideal way to leverage the program, and, we wish to stress that this is not being done anywhere else to date: this is unique to Madera. Eventually, United Way would like to see the program extended into Middle Schools to allow for a deeper and wider youth involvement in the betterment of their own community, from a younger age, to make it an appealing program for all MUSD students. The YLI partnership with the city council is another successful component of this enterprise: last year, the city of Madera passed an ordinance instituting the Youth Leadership Council as an integrated component of the city processes, which is the more traditional way of driving the partnership. Together, all these combined programs, and their leadership efforts, actively position the Madera community on the path to successfully overcome its challenges, change the narrative, and fuel the drive towards a bright future for Maderans.