YAKIMA, Wash. -- Neiri Carrasco’s calendar says it all — meetings. Many meetings. Since taking the helm as president and CEO of United Way of Central Washington on April 6, Carrasco has met dozens of people. She has talked with donors and volunteers and board members and representatives of some of the organization’s 53 partner agencies. “It’s been really interesting. ... Every day it is a new meeting, a new project,” said Carrasco, a Yakima native and 2000 graduate of A.C. Davis High School. Carrasco returns to a leadership role in her hometown at a critical juncture for the local United Way chapter, whose partner agencies serve about 100,000 people in Yakima and Kittitas counties. The organization’s annual campaign is wrapping up and officials are poring over paperwork for grant applications. Fund distribution begins July 1. United Way hopes to raise $1.4 million by May 31 in the campaign that began last fall, with the expectation the organization will reach a final total of $1.5 million, said Kaylene Stiles, director of operations for United Way of Central Washington. That’s less than the more than $1.6 million raised in the campaign that ended in June 2015, but Stiles noted that the campaign ending in June 2016 came in at $1.5 million. “Fundraising is a challenge in all rural areas. There are great nonprofits but limited funding, particularly in rural communities,” said Nancy Bacon, director of Learning & Engagement for Washington Nonprofits. It’s the state association for all nonprofits. Bacon recently led the fourth annual Central Washington Conference for the Greater Good, a daylong event in Yakima that offered workshops for nonprofit leaders, staff and volunteers on various subjects, including fundraising. Giving to United Way also is down on a national level as some question the need for what they see as a “charity middleman” in this age of easy online giving and ample data detailing a charity’s performance. Funneling local money to local nonprofits and ensuring that they are completing their mission are two of United Way’s most important historical roles. But Carrasco and Duane Monick, board chairman for the local chapter, see the organization taking on bigger roles in the community. They see United Way as a connector of organizations and individuals who can work together toward common goals. “I’m looking forward to outstanding performance on her part and hopefully improvement in the role that United Way can perform in the community and can bring people together to solve our commonly perceived problems,” Monick said of Carrasco. “I’m really excited she’s here. I think it will be great.” Carrasco appreciates the opportunity to help her community and United Way agencies succeed. “To me, United Way does that. If you can help agencies and you can help your community, it’s the best of both worlds,” she said. Education is key In high school, Carrasco wanted to be a dentist. As the first in her family to attend college, she had to blaze her own path, but kept that goal front of mind and stayed focused. “I always said since I was a little girl, ‘I want to go to college,’” said Carrasco. “Some of my peers and even my family said graduating from high school is good enough.” It wasn’t for Carrasco. “I want something else,” she told them. Supportive teachers and the Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement program made a difference. States throughout the country offer a variety of MESA programs to encourage early interest in math and science in historically under-represented groups and support middle and high school students and prepare them for college in science, technology, engineering and math majors. Beyond high school, MESA programs help community college students transfer to four-year colleges in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) majors and earn engineering or computer science bachelor’s degrees. “STEM was always a passion of mine,” said Carrasco, who participated in the MESA program at Davis. STEM majors are the jobs of the future, she noted. After two years at Yakima Valley College, she left for Rockford College in Rockford, Ill., where she studied business administration and Spanish while also working at a bank, graduating in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree. “My sister was there,” Carrasco noted. “I also wanted to see what was out there.” After returning to the Yakima Valley in December 2005, she worked in the Granger School District from 2006-07 as a parent education facilitator. Carrasco started working for the Yakima Valley/Tri-Cities MESA program for Washington State University in 2007 and served as its director from 2008-13. Under her leadership, the Yakima Valley/Tri Cities MESA became the largest K-12 MESA program in the state. In that role, she combined her business expertise and her desire to support students pursuing STEM careers by also working with school administrators, teachers and students’ families. Carrasco headed to the west side in 2013 to serve as director of MESA at the University of Washington in Seattle. She further honed her fundraising skills there by working with the board to develop an endowment so the organization could offer financial support as well. “I think Seattle is one of the few (MESA) centers with a scholarship,” Carrasco said. Among several goals in her new role, Carrasco wants to see United Way work more closely with the Valley’s school districts. In 2014, local volunteers began studying adverse childhood experiences, known as ACEs, as a critical issue in Valley communities. ACEs harm children’s developing brains so profoundly that the effects show up decades later as chronic disease and mental illness, according to United Way of Central Washington’s website, www.uwcw.org. ACEs also are at the root of most violence, the website says. Addressing them is an opportunity to help children and youths succeed in school, graduate on time and be ready for college and career, it notes. “That’s one of the meetings I’m going to,” Carrasco said of a recent gathering. “To check in — what are the next steps? ... I’ll be learning more about this.” While United Way’s attention to ACEs and how to help children be resilient and work through challenges has been low-key for the past few years, that’s changing, Monick said. “The conversations have been going on in the small group level; there hasn’t been any large (public relations) push to inform the community, but that’s changing at this point,” he said. “There’s a small cadre really interested in this process. (Educational Service District) 105 is definitely interested in improving the understanding in schools and the educational system.” Challenges Along with a renewed and expanded focus on ACEs, Carrasco also wants to offer more training opportunities for United Way’s partner agencies. “That’s something I feel strongly about,” she said. “...That is something I want to see happening, and happening soon.” A survey by the Statewide Capacity Collaborative indicated that there are not enough staff and leadership development programs in rural areas to shape the kind of leaders needed over time, Bacon said. “This is the work that we are doing — the nonprofit network, regular trainings, the conference and soon more — in partnership with the United Way and the Yakima Valley Community Foundation,” she added. With that in mind, it’s important to hear from partner agencies on what kind of training or other support is needed, Carrasco said. “A big piece of our job is to be in active listening mode all the time with the (partner) agencies,” she said. Carrasco wants to build relationships and connect individuals within the counties United Way serves, and that’s especially important, Bacon said. “Yakima is definitely on a journey for ways for nonprofit leaders and the community to work together, but folks tend to feel isolated,” she said. “They all feel like they’re working alone; there’s no connection between them. Those are the things we hear.” And while some question the need for United Way in today’s world of direct digital giving, Bacon thinks the organization has a broader perspective on challenges facing the communities it serves and thus can better help address those challenges. “I believe the role of United Way (is) working with local community foundations and local nonprofits” to address bigger issues, Bacon said. “Individuals don’t see trends. They’re not going to invest in conferences that teach folks how to raise money, board training, all of that work that strengthens nonprofit leaders.” It’s through efforts like those that United Way makes a difference with its donations, Carrasco said. “You are leveraging your dollars in a way you would not if donating directly to the organization,” she said. Last year, 789 people volunteered for United Way. Among her other goals, Carrasco wants to get the word out about what the organization is doing and how it’s making a difference. “I feel that the United Way does such great work, but our story’s not being told,” she said.
By Tammy Ayer firstname.lastname@example.org