Article By: Bonnie Williamson
Photos By: Josh Triggs
Making life better for the residents of the West Virginia counties of Jefferson, Berkeley and Morgan is the mission of the volunteer-driven nonprofit United Way of the Eastern Panhandle, Inc. Through grants, donations and hard-working volunteers, the United Way partners with a variety of community organizations to foster hope, prosperity and opportunity for everyone, according to Penny Porter, the organization’s CEO.
Porter says the three areas her organization concentrates on are education, financial stability and health.
“Through our Community Solutions Fund, we currently fund 34 programs at 29 different organizations in the tri-county area,” Porter says. “Those programs align with specific goals in our collective, community impact model. We also work to build partnerships that help to leverage the financial investment of our grants. Our volunteers are currently reviewing new grant applications.”
Porter, who has been CEO for three years, graduated from Hedgesville High School and received her degree in accounting from then Shepherd College [now Shepherd University]. Right out of college she went to work in Washington, DC, for U.S. Senator Jay John Davison “Jay” Rockefeller IV, who represented West Virginia from 1985 to 2015. Starting a career with the United Way was a good fit.
“I wanted to continue working on the issues he cared so deeply about,” she says.
Porter shares that commitment.
“I feel privileged to work for United Way as it provides an opportunity to help make a difference in the community I call home,” Porter says. “I grew up in Martinsburg and am grateful for the chance to raise my own daughters in our beautiful Mountain State. My family’s roots were also heavily influenced by poverty so many of the issues that we try to address at United Way are near and dear to my heart.”
The United Way movement started more than 128 years ago in Colorado when interested citizens developed a central, volunteer-driven organization and process to evaluate their community’s growing charitable needs. Porter said a trophy owned by the United Way of the Eastern Panhandle notes a date of 1928, celebrating the conduct of a Martinsburg Community Fund Campaign.
“Pictures and minute books note the later founding of our other county United Ways. These items are a testament to the long history of the United Way in the Eastern Panhandle. In one form or another, United Way has been making a difference in the lives of Eastern Panhandle citizens for more than 80 years,” Porter says.
The United Way of the Eastern Panhandle seeks to improve the community and create opportunities to help families become financially secure.
“We want to provide pathways for children to follow their dreams in a healthy and nurturing environment,” Porter says.
She adds that the organization’s board decided several years ago to concentrate on specific areas of concern. Those focus issues include children in poverty, affordable housing and homelessness, and mental health/substance abuse issues.
A variety of programs are taking place in collaboration with organizations with similar goals. Porter says the Born Learning Initiative helps with youth literacy and early child development. Born Learning puts books in the hands of youngsters from birth to 12th grade to foster academic achievement.
A fundraising event in April to support the Born Learning Initiative was the second annual “Little Black Dress” event held at the Holiday Inn in Martinsburg.
A task force is being developed to help deal with homelessness.
“We want to find the root causes of the problems facing our community and develop long-term solutions,” Porter says.
Meeting basic needs, like keeping warm during the cold winter months, is also, part of United Way’s programs. A fundraising campaign called “Warming Hands and Hearts” takes place until April 30. The United Way has teamed up with Roach Energy, ROCS Convenience Stores and the Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) to help provide much needed heating assistance. ROCS convenience stores are offering a “One-Cent Wednesday” promotion where each ROCS location in West Virginia will donate one cent per gallon of gasoline sold. Roach Energy will also contribute one cent per gallon of oil or propane that their customers purchase when requesting a delivery from their Warming Hands and Hearts truck.
Last year, the Warming Hands and Hearts Initiative provided families assistance with heating bills totaling $10,011.
Warming Hands and Hearts goes beyond financial assistance by providing a case manager who contacts the utility company on behalf of the client. Negotiated payment arrangements and financial management information are also provided.
Fundraising is an important part of what she does, says Porter.
“Working for the United Way is a rewarding job-challenging as we try to raise dollars to meet the community’s needs each year, but very rewarding. We are very grateful for the support of the community. We have wonderful support from individuals and businesses in the tri-county area who generously give their time and resources to United Way for us to invest back into the community,”
The United Way of the Eastern Panhandle has a workplace fundraising campaign where employees can invest in the community through the United Way. When businesses partner with the United Way of the Eastern Panhandle, they gain access to numerous ways to connect their employees to the communities where they live and work. Employees can invest in their communities through charitable donations or volunteerism. More than 70 businesses in the tri-county area have participated in the past.
While the money from fundraising is important, volunteers are vital for the United Way. With April being National Volunteer Month, it’s fitting that a new project was just launched.
“We have a new volunteer website, VolunteerEP.org. We are very excited about the future of United Way of the Eastern Panhandle and the opportunities we have to Live United! We will soon begin plans for Day of Caring, which is scheduled for September 11, 2018,” says Porter.
Porter says more than 1,000 volunteers participated in the Day of Caring last year. During the event volunteers participated in projects to improve their communities like painting fences, reading aloud or building ramps for disabled residents.
The United Way of the Eastern Panhandle has four full-time employees and between 40 to 60 volunteers that help each year.
“We have an incredible staff in our office – they are extremely committed to the organization and to the community,” Porter says.
The office is located at 24 District Way, Suite 201 in Martinsburg.
So, consider donating and/or volunteering to participate in programs by the United Way of the Eastern Panhandle. As former President Barack Obama once said, “The best way to not feel hopeless is to get up and do something. Don’t wait for good things to happen to you. If you go out and make some good things happen, you will fill the world with hope, you will fill yourself with hope.”
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