A few years ago, United Way of Greater New Haven convened the Community Compass project, a collaborative of over 30 business and community organizations focused on identifying our region’s greatest needs and best opportunities for change. Through data analysis and community interviews, Compass partners identified economic and educational disparity as the most significant challenges faced by our region.
In response to the Compass results, United Way’s Board of Directors and other lead volunteers decided to focus the organization’s efforts in three areas where we believed we could have the greatest impact on improving lives and changing conditions in our region: education, income and health.
In many ways, this focus takes us back to the roots of United Way. Over 80 years ago, when we were known as The Community Chest, local leaders came together to discuss the challenges faced by the people of our region and to undertake a coordinated response. Our current commitments reflect our history, while addressing the very real needs that families in the Greater New Haven region face today: ensuring that all children, beginning at birth, have quality learning opportunities that prepare them for school and life success; supporting families who are working to achieve economic stability and success; and helping people access affordable health care and be civically engaged and connected to each other.
Our work remains guided by community volunteers in partnership with strong local agencies. What has changed is that our work is driven by measurable goals and focused on results. And while United Way investments continue to help people in crisis, we are increasingly focused on prevention and opportunities to change conditions. For example, United Way still makes investments in local programs that provide emergency shelter. Increasingly, however, United Way is also working with and investing in programs that provide job training for homeless individuals, because a person who is supported in his or her efforts to get and keep a job is more likely to be able to acquire permanent, stable housing.
Early childhood is an area where our investments in prevention have yielded excellent results and was one of the key areas of need identified through Compass. Our work in early childhood is guided by the knowledge that what happens during a child’s earliest years lays the foundation on which the rest of her life experiences are built. We know that by the age of four, the average low-income child has heard 30 million fewer words than his or her higher income peers. This gap has long-term consequences: in one study, the vocabulary gap at age three predicted language scores in third grade. In fact, researchers now document that half the academic achievement gap evidenced in grade 12 can be attributed to gaps that already existed in first grade. Why is this important? Because Connecticut has the largest achievement gap in the nation between poor and non-poor children in both reading and math. It is in our best interests for all students to have the reading and math skills they need to be successful, for they are our future workforce, future community leaders, and future parents. The good news is that we also know that whatever their social or economic background, children who have supported, engaged parents and attend a quality preschool are more likely to be ready for school and continue to succeed throughout their school years.
Over the past four years, United Way has invested nearly $1.6 million through our Success By 6 initiative to support young children and their families. These efforts, in conjunction with community partners, have resulted in more parents in our community having the knowledge, skills, and support structure they need to be their child’s first and best teacher. United Way has also focused on helping more children benefit from high quality early care and education in child care centers and licensed family child care homes. Thanks to United Way’s efforts, almost 2,000 children have benefited from quality early care and learning programs. Through Success By 6, United Way has also provided leadership to a number of local early childhood councils, provided opportunities for community dialogue that engaged parents, professionals and community leaders, and mobilized hundred of volunteers to support parents and local early childhood programs. While we are pleased with our results to date, we know that there is more to do. Working together, we can ensure that all young children in our region have the kinds of opportunities that prepare them for school and life success.
There are many more stories to share about how your contribution is changing lives and making our community stronger. I invite you to visit our website (www.uwgnh.org) to learn more about the challenges we face as a community in these challenging economic times and how we can address them together.
President and CEO, United Way of Greater New Haven