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United Way Blog

Heart of a Volunteer: Blake’s Journey with United Way

Blake Henkel, a 31-year-old artist on the autism spectrum, has made significant strides in finding joy and purpose. His journey, characterized by personal and communal achievements, demonstrates the power of inclusivity and community support.

From an early age, Blake faced challenges connected with autism, particularly in verbal communication. But he did not let this deter him from pursuing his passions. Art became his voice, a means to express his unique perspective and connect with the world around him. Over the years, Blake's artistic talents have flourished, earning him national recognition and showcasing his capabilities. 

In addition to his artistic endeavors, Blake is committed to volunteerism as a way to enrich his life and the lives of others. For the past five years, support worker Ted Wilkinson has been Blake's companion. Together, they go to the gym, work on daily chores, and volunteer with United Way of Greater High Point's BackPack program.

The BackPack program, conducted in collaboration with The Salvation Army, started over a decade ago by concerned teachers who observed that hunger affected their students' ability to concentrate and perform academically. This observation led to the creation of a program that ensures students have access to nourishing meals outside school hours. Nearly 1,900 food bags are packed and distributed weekly, helping sustain students through weekends and school breaks. More than 90% of program participants have seen improved academic performance and general well-being.

The BackPack program also makes a difference for volunteers like Blake by providing them with vital workforce skills and financial literacy, thereby enhancing their social skills and overall confidence. Volunteering has increased Blake's sense of purpose and routine and enhanced his social skills and confidence. Blake's support worker, Ted, emphasizes de-stigmatizing special needs. "It's crucial to challenge preconceived notions and demonstrate that everyone has the potential to contribute meaningfully to society," he said.

United Way's commitment to community support and personal development is the driving force behind its efforts. Programs like the BackPack initiative, which address critical community challenges and help people realize their full potential, embody this commitment. This synergy of community support and personal development is a testament to United Way's dedication to ensuring that everyone, everywhere, thrives.

Many United Ways participate in United Way Day of Action every June, mobilizing volunteers in meaningful ways. This year, some 100 United Ways are galvanizing people around action to make their communities healthier and more resilient, boost financial security, and provide youth (from birth through young adulthood) with the opportunity to succeed in school, work, and life.

For example, in the small town of Conway, South Carolina, United Way of Horry County is leading a collaborative drive to gather baby essentials (like diapers, wipes, and books), paired with The Basics, an evidence-based, science-driven program that helps build a strong foundation for early childhood development. Together, they pave the way for infants and families, fostering a united approach to kindergarten readiness.

In central Missouri, United Way of Pettis County is bringing people together to improve housing for those who can't do it themselves (whether that's because of finances or physical abilities). Volunteer teams will be cleaning up yards, painting houses, repairing porches, building ramps, installing handrails, and much more. 

And it's happening across the world. United Way of South Africa will feed 500 people with a communal meal and plant vegetable gardens, which is part of its focus on food insecurity. In India, United Way Chennai will mobilize 1,000 volunteers to make 10,000 shopping bags out of newspaper and distribute them to local shops, part of its advocacy to eliminate plastic shopping bags.

Want to get more involved in your community? Find your local United Way here and get started today.

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