Volunteers from Eat Greater Des Moines unload produce at Vineyard Church. The organization is one of the funded partners of United Way of Central Iowa, which held its annual Live United celebration today. Contributed photo.

The United Way of Central Iowa today celebrated the work it has done over the past year and recognized others in the community for their efforts to make Des Moines a great place to live and work.

Today’s celebration, originally scheduled for April at Prairie Meadows, was held virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic. United Way of Central Iowa’s efforts to help vulnerable residents through the challenges the pandemic has created were shared during the celebration.

“We will spend a few moments talking about our COVID-19 response,” said Elisabeth Buck, the United Way of Central Iowa’s CEO in advance of today’s event. “We operate the COVID hotline [211] in 57 of Iowa’s 99 counties, so we’ll talk about the fact that we have been answering questions and common fears related to COVID-19. It’s switched a bit to now a need for essential services and basic needs.”

Nora Everett, chair of the United Way of Central Iowa’s board of directors, said that everyone is “facing challenges like nothing we have experienced before,” and that there is uncertainty about what the future may bring.

“Uncertainty and fear may be prominent now, but so is hope, determination and good will. As each day passes, we hear and feel a drumbeat of generosity and strength in the face of our challenges here in central Iowa,” Everett said in a news release provided to the Business Record before today’s event.

At today’s celebration, the United Way highlighted progress it has made in its areas of focus: education, income and health.

The Community Goals were established in 2008, setting goals of reaching a high school graduation rate of 95%, a financial self-sufficiency rate of 75% and a community well-being score of 64.5%.

According to the presentation, the high school graduation rate has increased 10 percentage points over the past decade to 93.4% in the three Central Iowa counties the agency serves. It also shows that 36,000 fewer people are living in poverty than three years ago, and have been lifted to a life of self-sufficiency using the federal poverty guidelines of 250% of the poverty level. The percentage of people who were self-sufficient in 2018, the latest year that data is available, was 67.7%, up slightly from 67% the prior year. The United Way remained stable in its health goal, with an index score of 62.5, because the region is lagging in the area of purpose, the report indicated.

To help bolster that, United Way of Central Iowa is launching a new project, Powered by Purpose, in July to help people define and embark on a personal journey of purpose.

“What we're finding is that purpose is one of the factors in our health work that most impacts the other areas of health,” Buck said. “So if an individual really has a clear defined personal purpose, it really impacts you not only at work but it impacts you in your personal life and impacts you in terms of making healthy decisions.”

Striving to reach its goals in areas of education, financial self sufficiency and health not only has helped strengthen the community but helped prepare it for when bad times or a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic strikes, Buck said.

“I don't think we thought about it through a lens of COVID, but we thought about it as, what are the strong building blocks that we needed,” Buck said. “And it really does help to prepare a community and individuals for times that are tough. And if we hadn't ... set these goals and collectively moved towards moving so many people to better places, it would make our recovery so much harder.”

She said United Way’s efforts aren’t just important to the individuals it helps, but to the community as a whole.

“We've been able to create in Central Iowa a strong workforce and strong corporate strengths … and all of that is because we've been willing, over the last 10 years or so to collaborate and realize that individually, different groups can certainly make progress but we certainly are better together when we come around, common goals and share strategies and progress together,” Buck said.

The United Way also handed out awards to businesses and individuals for their efforts to give back to the community. This year’s Live United award recipients are:
  • Spirit of Central Iowa Award: Sammons Financial. Honored for its commitment to giving, advocating and volunteering through United Way to support Central Iowa throughout the year.

     Individuals recognized:
  • Impact-Maker Award: Chaney Yeast for her dedication to advocating for and advancing policies to improve the health and well-being of children in Iowa.
  • Hand-Raiser Award: Ruth Sharp for her dedicated volunteerism for United Way of Central Iowa since 1989, giving a total 27,246 volunteer hours through the end of 2019.
  • Trail-Blazer Award: Morgan Johnson for her engaging, dedicated, and thoughtful leadership as the head of SHAZAM’s successful United Way campaign committee.

     Organizations recognized include:
  • Impact-Maker Award for advocacy: Evelyn K. Davis Center for Working Families, American Equity Investment Life Insurance Cos. and Athene.
  • Hand-Raiser Award for volunteering: DLL Finance LLC, ITA Group and Nationwide.
  • Game-Changer Award for giving: Homesteaders Life Co., Shazam and Farm Bureau Financial Services.