JOHNSTOWN, PA. – In recent years, the United Way of the Laurel Highlands has supported the North Cambria childcare center and education-focused home visit programs, working to remove barriers to early childhood development in the region.
Karen Struble Myers, president and CEO of local United Way group, said they launched a program that raises 75,000 diapers after discovering that high diaper prices are preventing families in Cambria and Somerset counties from getting children into programs that prepare them for kindergarten.
The group also realized that this was not nearly enough.
On Thursday, at the start of an annual fundraising campaign that sets a high goal of $1.2 million to support the two boroughs, United Way leaders announced they plan to spend some of that funds to tackle the problems plaguing a third of the district. Children under the age of 5 receive early education and childcare.
United Way partners acknowledged that this was a challenging task given the existing obstacles.
There is not enough room in childcare programs for 3,000 of the region’s 9,000 young children. Childcare centers are closing faster than new ones, and retaining staff is a daunting challenge as salaries are so low.
“But if we tackle this problem at the youth level, it will have a huge impact,” The Tribune-Democratic publisher Rob Forcey told a roomful of United Way partners at the University of Pittsburgh at the Living-Learning Center in Johnstown.
“This is a long-term bet for our region,” said Forcey, noting that quality child care prepares children to succeed as both students and adults.
It also allows parents who are forced to stay home to care for their children re-enter the workforce at a time when their talents are in demand.
Myers told the group that over the next year, the United Way plans to research people affected by the problem (including parents and caregivers) and form a coalition of stakeholders to help identify roadblocks in the area and find solutions.
Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on the nationwide childcare crisis, there are funding opportunities available to address it, he said.
“But we have to take a good look at it to make sure we’re investing in solutions that meet the unique needs of this community,” Myers said.
The efforts will likely take years to implement — but the long-term benefits may vary across generations, he said.
Forcey, who served as the keynote speaker for the event, said she first became aware of the challenges faced by childcare providers and clients while working in New York.
The only childcare option available to his two children at the time, he said, would cost the family $35,000 a year, forcing his wife to quit her job, he said. It was heartbreaking for him to abandon his career plan, but he admitted that he was luckier than most of his family.
Many families in the region, particularly single-parent households, do not have the luxury of a second family income to rely on, he said.
For families experiencing this reality, it means too many children are left behind before the first day of kindergarten – a crucial point in their development.
“This is something we need to fix,” Forcey said.
United Way raises money each year through its annual effort to support early childhood, parent involvement and youth drug and alcohol prevention programs, as well as the dozens of partner agencies and nonprofits that do this.
Chief executive Jeff Wood said this includes efforts to support victims of crime and homeless families. It also includes programs offered across Cambria County to prepare young people to make smarter choices about drugs and alcohol, such as Botvin LifeSkills.
Myers said that over the past year, United Way’s annual fund has supported 58,000 people in need in the region, averaging just $38 per person.
They urged supporters Thursday to find ways to add $38 or more to this year’s donation.
Forcey told the group that their time, talent and resources can make the difference.
“Use your superpower,” he said.
‘The Power of the Wallet’ raffle raises $50,000
The “Power of the Wallet” raffle event, which attracted nearly 700 women to the 1st Summit Arena @ Cambria County War Memorial in Johnstown earlier this month, raised a record amount of money to support several United Way initiatives.
Community Impact Manager Paula Gojmerac, the organizations Women United group, and a team of 44 volunteers raised $50,000 – more than 10% off the amount raised at the event a year ago.
More than 120 designer bags entered the sweepstakes to support early childhood and parent involvement initiatives.