WATERTOWN — In 1921, the Community Chest, the forerunner of the local United Way, sought to raise $118,000 from area citizens — a chance, the Watertown Daily Times editorialized, “to do real community service.”
With inflation factored, that $118,000 equals $1.8 million in today’s dollars, which coincidentally happens to be the approximate revenue taken in by the United Way of Northern New York for this year.
But as the United Way of NNY celebrates its 100-year anniversary, those monetary figures are where the similarities of the past and present end, as the focus on community-based and community-led solutions heads in a new direction.
Ohio native James “Jamie” L. Cox was appointed chief executive officer and president by the United Way of NNY board in June of 2019 to help steer that direction.
“When I took this job in 2019, the board of directors were looking for a change in direction,” Mr. Cox said during an interview at the United Way of NNY offices at 120 Washington St. “I think they showed a lot of gumption and courage in taking the risk of bringing in a complete stranger to Northern New York.”
He finds fulfillment in meeting his challenges — professionally and personally.
“When I moved up here to this job with my family, obviously I was excited,” said Mr. Cox, who lives with his wife, Jacquelyn, in the town of Lyme. They have three grown children. One lives in Kentucky, another in North Carolina and the youngest is a college student in Virginia.
“I’m more excited today than I was on June 17, 2019,” Mr. Cox said, noting his first day on the job here. “I’ve never had this much fun in my professional life. I get to be part of this amazing group of people that work for the United Way and I get to be their biggest cheerleader. I get to tell their story, but even more important, I get to go out in the community and put in place common-sense programs that are aimed at reducing suffering. How can you not have fun in that job?”
Of course, dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic has not been fun for the United Way. But it did cause it to speed up its transformation.
“We had planned a transformation, and we were in the middle of a transformation,” Mr. Cox said. “COVID just allowed us to jump on the accelerator.”
In 2019, the United Way of NNY’s mission statement changed, to “measurably improve the lives of all residents of Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties through leadership, training and funding.” The new mission includes three key points of focus: leadership, training and funding. The organization began reaching out to local municipalities to understand the unique challenges that each one faces.
A faster and more targeted response to local communities is also part of the new goal — a strategy seen in the early days of the pandemic.
There’s about 1,300 United Ways in the U.S., Mr. Cox said.
“Each of us is unique in how we respond to the needs of our individual communities,” he said.
When the pandemic hit, the United Way of NNY saw a supply chain problem.
“It was a supply chain where the end consumer was not able to access toilet paper or hand sanitizer,” Mr. Cox said, giving examples of items in short supply at the time.
The United Way of NNY in 2020 collected and distributed 2.5 million critical items, including masks, hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies, diapers, baby food and formula and paper products to 32 cities, towns, villages and school districts in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties. The United Way of NNY was one of only five national recipients of Kimberly Clark’s toilet paper donation. A semi-truck with 78,000 rolls of Cottonelle rolled into town with the donation.
In recognition of these efforts, the state United Way board earlier this year awarded $9,000 to the UWNNY to continue providing relief supplies, while also expanding vaccination efforts in conjunction with Jefferson County government.
“It was phenomenal to see how quickly this organization could transform to meet a unique need during a certain period of time,” Mr. Cox said.
Robert D. Gorman, United Way of NNY CEO and president from 2013 to 2019, is now board chair of the United Way of New York State. The local United Way, he said, has been a trend-setter in New York due to its merger history. What began in Jefferson County in 1921 merged with Lewis County in 1999 and St. Lawrence County in 2000.
Those mergers were overseen by Jayn M. Graves.
“There was a lot of forward thinking on her part, and the board of the United Way at the time,” Mr. Gorman said. “The United Way of Northern New York has been ahead of the game compared to a lot of other areas of the state.”
This past summer, six United Ways in the Rochester area combined to form the United Way of Greater Rochester and the Finger Lakes.
“There’s merger discussion in other parts of the state,” Mr. Gorman said. “Lots of it is driven by finances, but as I say about any merger, I don’t think anybody really cares about where the bookkeeping is done as long as the money raised in an individual county goes back to that county’s nonprofits.”
He added, “When people see the United Way, they know this local chapter (based) in Watertown or wherever it’s located, has been audited and checked on by a national organization. Its books are following national standards for accounting practices, it has a board of directors that has complete oversight of the CEO, it’s not a one-person operation and that decisions are being made by community volunteers and not just by a paid staff.”
a question of change
A native of Ohio, Mr. Cox attended the U.S. Naval Academy in Maryland and served 20 years in the Marine Corps. He was recognized for valor multiple times, according to a United Way news release, including being awarded the Purple Heart for the wounds he received in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004.
He served as an instructor pilot at the Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One, completed two tours at the Pentagon, completed a congressional fellowship where he was assigned to the U.S. House of Representatives and coauthored 13 federal appropriation bills and other legislation.
Mr. Cox has also worked in management at several businesses. In 2015, he joined a Texas nonprofit that encompasses mental health care using trauma-informed care, veteran retreats focusing on peer support and art therapy, financial assistance, physical wellness and nutrition and support of the homeless, the release stated. More recently, before his United Way appointment, he completed an executive master’s degree in business administration at the University of Texas, San Antonio.
He said that when he interviewed here in 2019 for the United Way post, he had to give a presentation to the NNY board, with a key question: “How are you going to change the United Way of Northern New York?”
It was a challenging question, he said, because he didn’t know “the culture of the people” or even the area’s geography.
“So I really had to approach it from an MBA standpoint, as opposed to the standpoint of somebody who lived here,” he said.
The rural nature of the north country reminds Mr. Cox of Haskins, Ohio, where he grew up.
“There are islands of people, and those islands are villages or hamlets, and they’re incredibly loyal to their town and villages,” Mr. Cox said. “It’s been an interesting journey over the past two years of learning and understanding the cultures of every village and what their challenges are and how to solve them.”
When he speaks of the transformation of the United Way of NNY, Mr. Cox compares today’s version to its “pre-digital” era. “Let’s say before the year 2005,” he said.
“The United Way of old, way back to the times of Community Chest, was very much tied to organized labor,” he said. “We would go in and talk about good things organizations are doing in the communities. We would collect donations and we would vet all those nonprofits out there and we would give out grants. We’ve really kind of changed the focus, in that technology has changed the donor.”
From mobile phones, he said, the organization could pick any nonprofit in the world and make a donation.
“And if they’re in the U.S., we could probably look up all the IRS paperwork and get all the background information to make an informed decision,” Mr. Cox said. “So that value proposition for the United Way really started to diminish in about 2005 in a global level and in Northern New York. We were just slow to transform to say, ‘Look, that’s not as important as it used to be. What is our value to the community?’ So when I got here, we really started to talk about where our focus was on nonprofits and fundraising for them, our focus shifted to communities and what communities needed for outcomes.”
Those communities include school districts in the United Way of NYY’s tri-county area, Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties.
“In the three counties, if you count school districts that we’re formally partnered with and all our nonprofits, we have about 60,” Mr. Cox said.
Since January, the United Way of NNY has partnered with, or has been seeking partnerships with every school district in the three counties, including colleges. Mr. Cox said he has about 13 school partnerships to go.
“We are using them as the eyes and ears to recognize problems when they arrive,” he said. “Schools are the focal points of communities these days. When we grew up, it was the churches. Society has changed.”
The new approach is linked to ALICE, a United Way program with roots in New Jersey and which has been adopted by the United Way of NNY and several other United Ways across the country. ALICE, an acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed, targets the struggles of households that earn above the Federal Poverty Level, but not enough to afford a bare-bones household budget.
The 2020 ALICE report shows New York’s low-income families systematically lost buying power and financial stability as the cost of essentials outpaced wages. The United Way of New York State reports that even before COVID-19, 45% of state households were one emergency away from financial ruin.
As an example of the school partnership, Mr. Cox said that if an administrator in say, LaFargeville Central, notices a family with a broken-down car that prevents parents from getting to work, the United Way of NNY could be notified. The key factor in the situation, Mr. Cox said, is “employed.”
“These are families, by virtue of their employment — and most of them work more than one job — they don’t qualify for government benefits,” he said. “They don’t get food stamps or rental assistance. But they’re living paycheck-to-paycheck and there’s not enough money in the savings account. So, that $125 fix for a flat tire is a life stopper for them. Their life comes to a grinding halt very quickly. The ALICE program empowers community leaders — schools, business owners — to see a problem and solve it right there on the spot.”
The United Way of NNY, Mr. Cox said, is able to help solve the family’s problem by working with a school district or other partner.
“If it’s a flat tire, for example, they’re going to call the nearest tire shop, set up an appointment,” he said. “That family is going to go down there and get that tire repaired, the United Way will pay for it, and the problem is solved.”
Although his school district hasn’t taken advantage of it yet, Travis W. Hoover, superintendent of LaFargeville Central, sees great potential in the ALICE program, calling it a “perfect partnership.”
“Parents and families are much more comfortable, especially in small rural schools, speaking to administrators and counselors about the hardships they are facing especially when related to their children,” Mr. Hoover said. “This leads to our school teams knowing a great deal more about what a family needs and the hardships they are facing; opening doors to provide the assistance needed.”
Mr. Hoover said that one of the major difficulties for families and children in rural schools is getting to the services that are offered in the more urban areas.
“The isolation, distance, and cost often are barriers that our families in the rural north country face,” he said. “Having the ALICE program available within our schools results in more access to help families get back on their feet or through a difficult time.”
Mr. Hoover explained that families in rural communities often aren’t aware of the options available to them or don’t think they qualify for help because they have a job and go to work every day.
“ALICE is such a special program because it is focused on a group of people who are often left out of receiving assistance: the hard working families who are struggling to make ends meet,” he said.
On the day of his interview with the Times, Mr. Cox said that earlier that day, he was on the Walmart website and was able to help a family in one of the three counties served by the United Way of NNY. The family’s home, he said, was infested with bed bugs. There was a digital shopping cart set up on the site to aid the family.
“They needed all new bedding, the parents were employed, but they didn’t have money saved up to buy new mattresses, new pillows,” he said. “So the school dumped everything into a walmart.com shopping cart, sends us the link, we jump on it, pay for it and ship it straight to the family.”
Such action, Mr. Cox said, is a “force multiplier.”
“When you take a look at our ALICE program and how we’re partnering and producing, we’re giving help, a sense of urgency to end problems quicker. That’s a multiplying effect.”
A multiplying effect is also seen in the United Way of NNY’s North Country Center for Nonprofit Excellence, created in January of 2020. Workshops, seminars and subscription-based online resources are available to nonprofit agencies. Year-round training is available for board members, senior management, staff, care providers, grant writers, financial managers and human resources personnel.
Nonprofits typically don’t have the funds for the professional development of staff, Mr. Cox said.
“So when you’re talking about someone who’s going to be a first-time supervisor, or a mental health counselor who you can’t afford to send to San Diego for a five-day conference to hear the best practices on trauma and informed care, the United Way can do those trainings and provide them to all the nonprofits in the region.”
The approach is also useful for cohort leadership development programs and panels, Mr. Cox said.
“And we do something as simple as Microsoft Excel training,” he added.
There are many problems with easy solutions, Mr. Cox said.
“Food/hunger is easy to solve,” he said. “It’s not rocket science.”
The obvious solution is stocking food pantries. But Mr. Cox also mentioned small farmers, local processors and distribution companies getting into the mix and providing fresh food to merchants in the tri-county area.
Food pantries are receiving more government funds, Mr. Cox said, but those funds have expiration dates.
“And it’s sad because food pantries are trying to do the right thing in terms of neighbors serving neighbors and communities serving neighbors. There’s no irony lost, in that if you put critical thinking in with that money, you could actually be much more effective,” he said. “So, somebody with SNAP benefits who lives out in Cape Vincent doesn’t have to worry about driving 25 miles to get to a grocery store. They may not have a car. We can take care of them right there inside their own community. That approach, both short term and long term, makes much more sense than doing the same thing we’ve been doing for the past 25 years and just putting a Band-Aid on it.”
A long-term approach, as the United Way of NNY pushes off from its century-mark, is a key focus. Often, that approach won’t be traditional, as it proactively pivots to new challenges in communities.
“I think the United Way, focusing on bigger issues like improving our medical systems, investing money to help our local hospitals and medical facilities recruit and retain people — that’s not a typical United Way mission,” Mr. Cox said. “When we look at the outcomes for our communities, if we invest time and/or financially into that, the return on investment isn’t tomorrow. It may be 10 years from now. But let’s not wait 10 years, sit there and go, ‘I wished we would have invested back then, because it’d be making a difference right now.’”
Times archive librarian Kelly Burdick contributed to this report.