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United is the Way to Go

The year 1933 in Greenwich had much in common with the present, although the numbers of unemployed today will probably not approach those of the thirties when there were breadlines at the YMCA and a thousand families received monthly checks from the Town Welfare Fund. Back then, the social service agencies were uncoordinated and overlapping. Each tried to raise money on its own, creating a conflicting set of appeals.

Realizing that a coordinated town-wide effort must be made to raise money and provide more effective help to those in need, a group of leading citizens met to address the problem. The result was the Community Chest and Council with a mission to launch a single all-encompassing appeal and to allocate the funds to the various organizations based on an assessment of need. The first drive netted $192,600, which was a tidy sum in those Depression years, and it would not have been attained but for the inspiring leadership of the dynamic Helen Wilshire who, at the eleventh hour, saved the day by taking over a meeting with a rousing call to action. In those dark days of the thirties, the Community Chest was credited with instilling a unifying spirit in Greenwich.

Since 1977, when the Community Chest became the United Way of Greenwich, its annual campaign has become a familiar exercise involving an army of volunteers, fund-raising events such as the Lobster Fest and Soap Box Derby, and loads of publicity. By contrast to the Chest’s first drive, last year’s donations to United Way totaled $3,226,906, and the number of agencies served has grown from nine to twenty-six.

While the original intent of both the Community Chest and United Way was to provide a single, exclusive fund-raising facility for all town-service organizations, most found that their needs could not be met by the United Way allocation alone and they still had to conduct their own campaigns. Among the major ones were the Red Cross, Boys and Girls Club, Family Centers, Greenwich Hospital, YWCA and YMCA. Even so, funding from the United Way is an essential base of support for our service agencies, without which many would not survive.

According to United Way President and CEO Stuart Adelberg, allocations for this fiscal year ending June 30 will not be effected by the economic crisis, but looking ahead to next year is another matter. Very few of our nonprofits have been able to meet their funding goals recently, and it is obvious that United Way is not immune. Adelberg is quick to point out, however, that most agencies base their budgets on the United Way allocation, and the United Way has never failed to deliver the amount of financial support promised.

When we think of United Way, what first comes to mind is its annual town-wide campaign. Less appreciated is the importance of its role in assessing and understanding unmet needs in our community. Four teams of volunteers set forth each year to interview every one of the twenty-six participating agencies.

A thorough review of the operations and finances is conducted and reported back to the allocations committee for final decisions on the sharing of the revenue pool. As new areas of need are identified, information is exchanged with the relevant agencies, local elected officials and organizations like the Junior League, which often relies on United Way’s information when determining its own areas of focus.

Currently, the League and United Way are teamed up with the Town of Greenwich to replace the old, much used playground at Bruce Park with a Boundless Playground openening this spring. This unique playground is designed to provide enjoyment for children of all abilities.


United Way acts as a catalyst in developing new programs such as this, and has a collaborative relationship with the Junior League that has been extremely productive over the years. It has led to the creation of many of our present service agencies. While the original initiative may come from United Way, says Adelberg, it has often been the Junior League with its large membership of well-trained volunteers that has stepped in to make it happen.

Almost everywhere you turn you will find an organization that owes its origin to a United Way initiative or was created as a result of a United Way study. Programs are often developed in partnership with other organizations, which then may take ownership. It is this behind-the-scenes work that makes it difficult to enumerate the United Way’s contributions to life here in Greenwich. But one thing is certain, be it directly or indirectly, the organization touches all of our lives. Here are just a few examples:

Domestic abuse, a growing problem in Greenwich, was the subject of a joint United Way/YWCA task force study. Police report that next to robbery it is the most investigated crime in town. The study led to establishing Domestic Abuse Services with the YWCA taking ownership and operating a 24-hour domestic abuse hotline. Over 7,000 calls have been received in the past two years.

The greatest areas of need are found at either end of the age spectrum. At one end are the elderly. The Commission on Aging and the Transportation Association of Greenwich, familiarly known as TAG, are both the result of United Way recommendations. TAG was created to provide a single service to transport the elderly to doctor appointments, shops and agencies such as Greenwich Adult Day Care, which United Way also helped spawn. It replaced an inefficient and inadequate patchwork of transport services. TAG recently celebrated its one-millionth rider, delivering a surprised and delighted elder to GADC amid balloons and confetti.

At the other end of the spectrum are our youngest children. United Way is the largest nongovernmental provider of scholarships for childcare and pre-school programs. Early childhood education and  school readiness have long been priorities of United Way, and in the mid-nineties it set out to create 250 new preschool spaces in town. The goal was finally achieved last year with the opening of the Children’s Day School at the Western Civic Center.

Focusing on our older children is the Youth Services Council with a Youth Services Coordinator in the person of a very energetic Jenny Bixbee. She not only coordinates youth activities, guiding kids toward fun and productive things to do, but acts as counselor, advocate and representative for our teenage population. And, because of the natural proclivity of adolescents to get into trouble, a Juvenile Review Board was created in cooperation with the police department late last year. For juveniles who will admit to their crime or misdemeanor, it serves as an alternative to entering the justice system and a possible jail sentence. By offering them a second chance, usually in exchange for community service, a police record is avoided.  It has had the enthusiastic endorsement of the police department, and it was United Way that provided the catalyst.

Of critical concern is our lack of affordable housing. Recognizing that few teachers, police and other town service employees can afford Greenwich’s lofty home prices, the United Way recently conducted a study that not only defined the dimension of the problem, but calculated the true added cost to the town in extra pay and incentives to compensate employees for the lengthy commutes from where they can afford to live. Even with that, it is difficult to attract and keep qualified people. The study has been hailed as a landmark, and many of its recommendations have been incorporated in the current Plan of Conservation and Development.

The founders of the original Community Chest and Council would be delighted to see how their brainchild has evolved. We have reason to be proud of what United Way has done and continues to do to make Greenwich a better home for everyone. It is due to literally thousands of dedicated volunteers who have contributed their time to the United Way cause over the years, as well as to the response of citizens of
both great and modest means to the call for donations.

While the current economic crisis is affecting everyone, the hardship is much greater for some. As we look forward to the special 75th Anniversary celebration of the United Way of Greenwich scheduled for April 25 (see Calendar for details), we should be mindful of its mission to care for those who are most vulnerable and whose needs today are especially great.