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United Way’s Women’s Leadership Council: A Lifeline For Women

Original Source: WHIRL Magazine

By Abby Dudley

United Way’s Women’s Leadership Council (WLC) is full of women who help women (who help women), and we sat down with four of them who are shaping how Allegheny County gives back. Mary Richter, Tax Shareholder for Schneider Downs and co-chair of the WLC with Kelly Gray, senior vice president of Human Resources of FedEx Ground; Christy Uffelman, partner and head of the East Coast office of Align Leadership, and executive team member on the WLC; and Atiya Abdelmalik, Director of Community Programs and Employee Volunteerism at Highmark Health, are intent on using their leadership positions to reach women in need.

“Women’s Leadership Council is over 2,000 amazing women committed to making a difference in our community,” Uffelman says passionately. “I get goose bumps just saying it! That, to me, is just tremendous. It’s us helping us.” They are a group of women who — put simply — care, and their mission is not a hard one to rally behind. “The goals are kind of simple,” Richter explains.   “The problems aren’t simple, but the goals are. It’s really just helping people in a crisis.” That directive, to help people, unites these community leaders as a team. They work with each other and for each other, and Abdelmalik is inspired by that unity. “There’s no rivalry when we’re together. There are no politics. It is a single focus on, ‘How do we support other women?’” she says. “It doesn’t get much better than that.”

And when they’re all together, they are a force to be reckoned with. “Our Women’s Leadership Council is particularly effective,” Gray proudly explains. As the fastest growing WLC in the nation, it has 2,032 members, an increase of six percent over the last year. In the 2014-2015 campaign, it raised more than $8.9 million, which is eight percent more than the previous year. Since its inception in 2002, WLC has raised more than $50 million, ranking it fifth in the nation for overall dollars raised.

While belonging to the WLC exposes members to an incredible network of women, it’s far more than just a networking opportunity. “Personal and professional development” is what a member can expect to both give and gain from her involvement in this community. There is an endless string of fulfilling volunteer opportunities — Day of Caring, Sew-in, Project Journey, being a middle school mentor, landscaping at the women’s shelter, providing financial or career mentoring to a woman trying to get back in the workforce — varied enough for anyone to find a project that feels personal.

When these women find those causes closest to their hearts, the community impact is immeasurable. Abdelmalik spoke about Sue, a woman who felt that impact greatly. A veteran who left a home with domestic abuse, she found herself alone with her children and no place to stay. Project Journey, a joint project with the Veterans Leadership Program, found her and her family a safe home to make it through that difficult transition, unloading some stress from her in a time of crisis. It’s these transformative moments when the United Way and the WLC show their infinite value — when victims find themselves in what feel like irreparable situations. They’re a line of hope that shows how life can be repaired, and that compassion is attractive to so many.

The WLC offers spectacular professional opportunities as well. Beyond exposure to top women in just about every industry, Women’s Leadership Council hosts inspiring and powerful events for its members. The Executive Spotlight Series presents what Christy Uffelman calls “been-there-done-that women” who share stories about their career trajectories, their lessons learned, mistakes made, and, most importantly, inspire others with their successes. Uffelman herself hosts an intimate gathering each year to connect women with each other over hors d’oeuvres and wine. The annual WLC breakfast is one
of Mary Richter’s favorites, featuring a speaker who talks to the 1,000 guests in attendance. “Experiencing the power, the leadership, the good feelings in that room — it’s really inspiring to see everyone coming together and being moved by the same stories, by the same opportunities.”

Membership in the WLC, and access to all of this, is donations-based. Women who give $1,000 a year or $20 a week are qualified to become members. But to appeal to a broader network of givers, WLC provides another option. Richter says the Step-up program is an alternative that starts at a $500 level and is good for those who may have a tighter budget.

It’s a particularly resonant program for Uffelman, who remembers her first years with the council. “When I first engaged with United Way, I didn’t have that much treasure to give,” Uffelman says. “I was all about giving my time for a cause that I believed in, but I didn’t have the treasure yet. This is an opportunity for young women to come in and grow with us.” It’s her favorite part about the mission — watching new or prospective members realize the potential of their involvement, recruiting women to develop with the organization.

And the WLC is always looking for new members to get involved. “We love having new members because we have lots of needs, and we’re not able to meet all of the needs, so we need lots of help!” Gray says. In fact, it’s a central part of the council’s goal, instilling in a younger generation the need to give back. “We help to show young people social services and human services organizations are important,” says Richter. “That volunteerism is important. That philanthropy is important.”

Beyond monetary donations, people can get involved with the WLC by contributing what they’re good at. Abdelmalik conveys that they’re “looking for women who have expertise that they can volunteer, whether it’s financial expertise, legal assistance, job training, unemployment help. There are so many skill sets that women can contribute to the program.”

For those who are interested in sharing their talents, donating their money, or contributing their time, Uffelman has one piece of advice: “Call me!” And she means it. Picking up the phone is an easy piece of advice, and it’s also central to a core project of the WLC: the 211 hotline. Uffelman explains, “[Say] you’re in a situation where you were already living paycheck to paycheck and you have one car and the car breaks down but you don’t have the money to repair it. And you can’t get to work because you’re not on a bus line. What do you do? 211.”

It will connect you to the resources you need to make it through a time when you need help. The success stories are extensive — from a woman who was able to find a bed for her elderly father who was moving in, to a sister inheriting her four siblings after their mother passed who was able to recover her security deposit. It’s a manifestation of one of the Women’s Leadership Council’s most important messages: I am not alone. You are not alone.

Along with input from community leaders and other agency partners, it also feeds data to another critical movement within the WLC: United for Women, for which Abdelmalik is on the committee. The program is an answer to a simple enough question: how do we help the woman who is facing financial crisis for the first time? “Whether that financial crisis is because of a divorce or leaving an abusive situation or a health crisis,” Abdelmalik explains. “You’re going along in life, and it’s all good. You have a job, you have an income, you may have a spouse. Then, something crashes and it throws you off course. Where do you go? How do we catch those women from falling? Falling too deep and too hard? United for Women provides you with what you need to keep moving in the midst of a tragedy.”

“It’s a wonderful initiative,” Gray says of the program, “women helping women. Research has shown that women reinvest 70 percent of their earnings back into their families because they want to, which obviously has a ripple effect throughout the community in which they work and live.” That sentiment is fundamental throughout the Women’s Leadership Council — that women are worth the time, the money, and the effort. It’s a sentiment well-articulated by Abdelmalik when she quoted Melinda Gates: “When you invest in women, you’re investing in the people who will invest in everyone else.”