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United Way and Thurston County Team Up to Provide Critical Services During Pandemic

When Thurston County received more than $15.7 million in coronavirus relief funds through the CARES Act in June, County Commissioners held a special four-hour meeting to decide how to spend the money to most effectively meet community needs. One key result: $500,000 went to United Way of Thurston County to provide nonprofit grants focusing on food, hygiene products and essential services for families impacted by COVID-19. More recently, the county allocated an additional $1.75 million to United Way to continue providing resources to nonprofits supporting vulnerable families, youth and senior citizens. 


The decision was a simple one, according to Thurston County Manager Ramiro Chavez. “United Way has been in the business of providing services for decades,” he says. “They’re more in touch with the community need. It was only logical for us to look at how they could help us to distribute the money because they are the experts on the ground.” 


The funding enabled United Way to provide critical support to the Thurston County Food Bank and congregant meal programs such as The Community Kitchen run by Catholic Community Services. “These organizations had to manage a surge in demand and an increase in costs, and at the same time there have been supply chain disruptions because food processing plants had to shut down when their employees got sick,” says United Way Executive Director Chris Wells. “There were a lot of complicating factors that conspired to create a perfect storm of challenges that they’re continuing to manage.” 


United Way was able to approach the issue strategically based on their strong relationships with local organizations. “We see the whole landscape of food systems and what all of this creates in terms of financial challenges,” says Wells. “We stepped in with the understanding that these programs can’t be allowed to fail. Our highest priority has been to ensure that doesn’t happen. The partnership with the county has been incredibly important because we all have the same priorities.”  


It is hard to measure impact amid the uncertainty of the pandemic, but Thurston County Economic Development Manager Jennica Machado believes the partnership with United Way has been effective. “The grant funds significantly mitigate and offset the impact we’ve seen on local nonprofits,” says Machado, “at a time we’re seeing demand surge the most. We’re hoping that this can serve as a bridge for those organizations through these unprecedented times.” 


A key goal now is to make sure that groups who provide essential safety nets can sustain themselves. “We’re asking them to tell us how much longer they can continue operating at this level and then mobilizing resources,” says Wells. “It’s a big relief for them to know that in a year when the community needs them more than ever, they don’t have to worry because we’re going to get them funded.”