United Way aims to raise $1.2M, plans to break early childhood education barriers | News


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JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – In recent years, United Way of the Laurel Highlands has tried to break down barriers to early childhood development in the region, directing support to a Northern Cambria child care center and education-minded home visitation programs.

After discovering that high diaper prices were preventing families in Cambria and Somerset counties from getting children into programs that prepare them for kindergarten, they launched a program that raised 75,000 diapers, said Karen Struble Myers, president and CEO of the local United Way group.

The group also realized that it wasn’t nearly enough.

During a kickoff on Thursday of an annual fundraising drive that set a lofty $1.2 million goal to support the two-county area, United Way leaders announced that they intend to spend a portion of those funds to erase issues that prevent one-third of the region’s children under 5 from receiving early education and child care.

It’s a challenging task, given the obstacles that exist, United Way partners acknowledged.

There isn’t enough available space in child care programs for 3,000 of the region’s 9,000 young children. Child care centers are closing faster than new ones open, and retaining staff is a daunting challenge because the pay is so low.

“But if we fix this problem at the youth level, it’s going to have a huge impact,” The Tribune-Democrat publisher Rob Forcey said to a roomful of fellow United Way partners at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown’s Living-Learning Center.

“This is a long-term bet for our region,” Forcey said, noting that quality child care prepares children to succeed as students and as adults.

It also allows parents who’ve been forced to stay at home to care for their children to reenter the workforce at a time when their talents are in demand.

Over the next year, the United Way plans to survey people affected by the problem – parents and care providers included – and build a coalition of stakeholders to help identify and find solutions to the region’s roadblocks, Myers told the group.

Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on the nationwide child care crisis, there are funding opportunities available to address it, she said.

“But we have to take a good look at this to make sure we’re investing in solutions that address the unique needs of this community,” Myers said.

The effort will likely take years to implement – but the long-term benefits could span generations, she said.

Forcey, who served as the event’s keynote speaker, said he first became aware of the challenges facing child care providers and customers when he was working in upstate New York.

The only child care options available at the time for his two children would have cost the family $35,000 a year, forcing his wife to quit her job, he said. It was heart-wrenching for her to give up her career plan, but his family is luckier than most, he acknowledged.

Many families across the region – particularly single- parent households – don’t have the luxury of a second family-sustaining income to rely on, he said.

For the families living that reality, that means that too many children are falling behind before their first day of kindergarten – a crucial point in their development.

“This is something we should be able to fix,” Forcey said.

The United Way raises money through its annual drive each year to support early childhood, parental engagement and youth drug and alcohol prevention programs – as well as dozens of partner agencies and nonprofits who carry out that mission.

That includes efforts to support crime victims and families without homes, board chairman Jeff Wood said. It also includes programs delivered across Cambria County to prepare teens to make smarter choices about drugs and alcohol, such as Botvin LifeSkills.

Over the past year, United Way’s annual fund supported 58,000 people in need in the region, for just $38 per person on average, Myers said.

They urged supporters Thursday to find ways to add another $38 or more to this year’s donation.

Forcey told the group that their time, talents and resources can make a difference.

“Use your superpower,” he said.

‘Power of the Purse’ raffle raises $50,000

The “Power of the Purse” raffle event that drew nearly 700 women to 1st Summit Arena @ Cambria County War Memorial in Johnstown earlier this month raised a record amount of money to support several United Way initiatives.

The organizations’ Women United group and a team of 44 volunteers raised $50,000 – a more than 10% leap from the amount raised at the event a year earlier, Community Impact Manager Paula Gojmerac said.

More than 120 designer purses were raffled off to support early-childhood and parental-engagement initiatives.

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