A crowd of 534 volunteers and 100 nonprofit representatives — all sporting purple T-shirts — gathered for Yellowstone County's annual Day of Caring on Sept. 12. The West High drum corps set an upbeat tempo. After lunch, volunteer crews left MetraPark to spend the afternoon completing 43 projects at local nonprofit agencies. They trimmed trees at Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch, washed walkers and wheelchairs and played corn hole at St. John's United, removed graffiti from the city skate park, built a trail at High Sierra disc golf course, made Christmas decorations for Family Tree Center and built terrariums with preschoolers at the YMCA.
The volunteer army could have been even bigger, as it was in some years past. But experience has shown that around 550 volunteers and 40 projects are the ideal numbers to arrange meaningful work that will keep all volunteers busy for 3 1/2 to 4 hours. United Way of Yellowstone County is careful to work for quality results and focus resources to make the greatest impact.
The Day of Caring also serves as a kickoff for United Way of Yellowstone County's annual fundraising campaign.
When Carol Burton, United Way president and CEO, started that job 22 years ago, the organization raised money in the fall and gave it away in the spring. In the past two decades, United Way has become much more than a fund raiser and funder. The annual campaign remains the major funding source, but United Way also works with foundation and government grants, private and public contracts and has been able to earn revenue on investments that can be plowed back into the community. United Way is a leader or active participant in numerous community coalitions, such as Substance Abuse Connect, Continuum of Care for housing and Best Beginnings for early childhood.
"In 2001, we launched the transformation into an impact United Way," Burton said. "We have an impact plan, we have diversified funding — from foundations, government grants, contracts and investments."
United Way has developed multi-year grants to partners who work on school readiness, school success, senior independence, crisis stabilization and Montana 211 information network. In addition to 11 multi-year partners, this year United Way launched smaller "Go Grants" to assist 15 other nonprofits.
The 2018 United Way report shows $1.94 million in revenue and $1.93 million in expenses. Individual contributions account for more than two-thirds of the revenue with corporations, foundations, government and private contracts and investment income providing the rest.
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Among the lasting impacts she has seen in 22 years, Burton points to CARE Academy, the United Way program that serves Billings elementary students from a dozen schools. The school district asked United Way to take over the elementary program when it already offered Discovery Zone after school programs at two middle schools. The partnership continues with United Way providing before and after school care as well as a summer program. The school district buses participating children from their Central Heights, McKinley, Miles Avenue, Rose Park and Washington to CARE Academy sites at Arrowhead, Big Sky, Boulder, Highland and Meadowlark.
"I was proud that United Way had the resources and willingness in 2009 to transition CARE Academy in areas of town with no other after school program," said Burton, noting that the program continues to keep more than 350 elementary children safe. Most are in K-3.
Getting sufficient, quality staff of 30 per day is a challenge for these part-time jobs. One important source of staff is Montana State University, which encourages students to do internships and fulfill class requirements by working in the after school program.
"I've had employers tell me it's so important to have quality out of school time," Burton said. "Knowing that their children are staying right at school reduces parent anxiety so they can do their jobs."
The Sept. 12 gathering was Burton's last Day of Caring as CEO. She plans to retire by March 31. The United Way board is preparing to begin the search for her successor.
"Carol's passion for this community and the United Way has brought meaningful change to the lives of so many," Board Chairwoman Karla Stauffer said in a news release. "We look forward to carrying her passions and commitment well into the future."
United Way's mission is "mobilizing the caring power of the community." Burton has been the mobilizer in chief for a generation. Our community is safer, healthier and more prosperous because of her work.