FARGO - The United Way of Cass Clay is aiming to raise $5.8 million toward its efforts in the coming year to help families break the cycle of poverty.

The 2021 Community Kickoff Event, held Tuesday Sept. 14, was a virtual affair, livestreamed on UWCC’s website and the agency’s Facebook page. There were also watch parties around the community.

“We look to find long-term solutions to break the cycle of poverty,” said Christie Lewandoski, the organization’s director of resource development said. “By each of us giving a little, we can change lives.”

Roughly 1 out of 9 people in Cass and Clay counties lives in poverty, as defined as a family of four with an income of less than $26,000 per year. That is about 29,000 people, said Thomas Hill, UWCC’s vice president of community impact.

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There are a lot of jobs in the area that could lift a family out of poverty, but finding transportation, child care and other issues are barriers in the way of getting degrees or other qualifications for those jobs, Hill said.

‘A game changer’

The answer, he said, is career coaches, who weave together the support services to help people reach their goals.

“That has been a game changer for us,” Hill said.

UWCC has six career coaches now, and plans to hire at least two more, he said.

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Ashley Littlewolf is one of those career coaches, working for Southeastern North Dakota Community Action Agency.

Littlewolf grew up on Minnesota’s Leech Lake reservation, and faced many of the same obstacles that her clients face in reaching their career goals.

Littlewolf said her job is to connect her charges to child care, Head Start, rental support, transportation, and other services.

She’s the “cheerleader, coach, motivator” to helping people meet their goals.

Littlewolf told the stories of two women she helped to get into stable housing and training to become certified nursing assistants, guiding them through the process and helping them overcome obstacles. One of the women, Rose, even had power to her family’s home cut off, a situation that Littlewolf helped rectify.

Littlewolf said that when Rose finally got the job she wanted - helping people with dementia - she said it was the first time in her life that she was not only able to pay her bills, but have money left over to shop for other items.

“Her kids have the chance to break the cycle of poverty,” Littlewolf said. “To so many people I work with, it is life-changing,” to have a career coach.

Hill said each of the career coaches has a caseload of about 15 people. With the need for career coaches in the community, he said it’s important to ramp up the program.

‘The career coaches are what has often been missing in these people’s lives,” Hill said.

New leadership

UWCC also has a new leader in Karla Isley, who took over as president and CEO on Monday, Sept. 13.

Isley came from Noridian Healthcare Solutions, where she had served 20 years, most recently as that company’s vice president of strategy and innovation. She likes the bold goals the United Way has set.

“We have a great team here and we’re so passionate and excited for the community to come together,” Isley said. “I’m so excited and humbled to be part of the team."

Isley said she had two children, ages 5 and 7, and she wants everyone in the community to have the same chances to succeed as her own.

“I think about my 5-eyar-old starting kindergarten a couple weeks ago, and he was ready to go. And why not have everyone have that ability to do that? And to allow people to be independent. I grew up on a small dairy farm in west Central Minnesota, not too far from here. And neighbors help neighbors. I think when neighbors help and build a community around that, we can make a better community,” Isley said.

Also introduced Tuesday was 2021 Volunteer Campaign Chairwoman Jodi Duncan.

Duncan said community needs can be too easily missed.

“It’s money and it’s time. We need you,” Duncan said. “It’s so easy to overlook what’s right in front of us.”