United Way at Work: YMCA Achievers

August 25, 2015


When speaking with Mina Ford, Executive Director with YMCA of Central Florida Teen Achievers, her passion is contagious. This is more than a job to her and YMCA Achievers is more than just a program; this is Mina’s calling.

“When my son was in 7th grade, I was looking for a program for him to help him grow,” she said. “We found the YMCA Achievers. First I was involved with them as a parent, then when I saw their great work, I became a volunteer eventually became a member of the part-time staff.”

After spending time as a PT staff and seeing her son off to college and then graduate school, YMCA Achievers became Mina’s passion and she became a full-time employee.

Mina’s dedication is easy to understand due to the great work the United Way-funded YMCA Achievers program accomplishes. Focused on college and career readiness, the program helps students look beyond middle school and high school and encourages them to think of their future.

The Corporate partnerships provide volunteers to facilitate career and college sessions working together as group mentors.  Achievers provides exposure and introduces students to different careers and educational paths.

The program prepares students for the transition to college life. For many, they have never spent time away from home before. The Achievers program organizes college tours, visit the dorms and eat at the cafeteria to get a real taste of college life.

To help students think about their fields of study, the Achievers invites industry leaders and experts to talk with the students.

“We will bring in nurses or healthcare professionals to speak to those interested in a medical career for example,” said Mina. “By bringing in active professionals, it gives them snapshots of what those jobs are like and what kind of skills and education they will need.”

Once they have a goal in mind, students are coached in career readiness. Serving Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties, volunteers in the program help prepare resumes and teach how to handle professional correspondence, helping students prepare to have real jobs.

Since its inception 25 years ago, the YMCA Achievers program has served over 11,000 students, including 150 funded by United Way this past year. The Achievers program gives students a real opportunity at improving their future and paving the way for success, key tenants of United Way’s philosophy.

For more information about YMCA Achievers or how to volunteer, visit the YMCA website.  

Volunteer Spotlight: Eddie Soler

August 20, 2015

Orlando-Eddie Soler-Administration-4x6 2014As Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer of Florida Hospital, to say that Eddie Soler has a lot on his plate is an understatement. With 2,100 beds and seven hospitals within the system, Eddie is tasked the enormous responsibility of serving the community while managing an incredibly complex health system.

But Eddie is not a man who takes a break; when he sees there is a need, he acts.

He was especially motivated to take action in 2011. That year, CBS’ “60 Minutes” program did a report on homeless families—including those with children—living in their cars or cheap motels. It was a watershed moment for Eddie.

“It was a real eye-opener for me,” he said. “It was a real motivation to get involved with local champions to make a difference.”

This motivation led him to Heart of Florida United Way, where Eddie serves on the board and continually volunteers his time and expertise.

What made you get involved with United Way?

United Way always had such a strong relationship with Florida Hospital, so I was introduced to United Way’s work through my professional relationship. The more I learned about United Way’s work, the more I realized how much they do in the community. The scope of their work is incredible, from ending homelessness to improving graduation rates in Central Florida.

Then when I joined United Way’s Board and saw the accountability process—where partner agencies are evaluated and results are measured—I saw firsthand the kind of impact United Way makes.

What causes you to volunteer?

It’s part of Florida Hospital’s culture. We have a Bible verse printed on a lot of our materials that promotes caring for the community “because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Helping just one person benefits the whole community and that has shaped my own personal philosophy as well.

What do you think is the biggest community need in Central Florida?

Homelessness in Central Florida continues to be a major issue, but the ALICE report really startled me; the data is staggering. There are so many people in our area who are working hard but can barely make it. They’re just one unexpected expense—a medical bill, a car repair—away from financial disaster. These are huge issues that needs someone to lead the charge to make it better, and that someone is United Way.

What do you think United Way should tackle next?

Education is key. There is a direct link between the level of education and income and lifestyle. United Way has the potential to make great inroads in helping students graduate and get a post-secondary education or learn a trade so they can make a good income.

What is one word you would use to describe United Way?

I can’t pick just one, but how about a phrase? “Community Champion.” United Way provides comprehensive solutions for sustainable change.

What is one thing about United Way you think most people don’t know about?

So many people think that United Way just helps the poor, but it is so much more than that. It offers assistance for all people, from education to health. The 2-1-1 Information and Assistance helpline is amazing, providing crisis aid. The reach of United Way is much bigger than most people realize.

Top 10 Tips For Thrift Store Shopping

August 17, 2015

Thrift-Shop-1Way before Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” hit the charts, savvy shoppers knew the value of thrifting.  Everything seems so expensive now, from gas to groceries, so finding discounts when possible is important. For many basic essentials, like clothing or furniture, thrift shops can be a budget-saver.

For those new to thrifting, it can seem overwhelming. Many of the stores are huge and carry everything from holiday trinkets to books and beyond. Wading through the piles of merchandise to find those gems can be tricky, but the feeling of victory when you find a gorgeous piece for pennies on the dollar can’t be beat.

There’s a science to finding great items at thrift stores, so check out our ten tips for making the best of thrifting trips:

  1. Scout out locations: Some stores are picked over and rarely restock. Others are bursting at the seams. Check out thrift stores near higher end neighborhoods; they often have name brand clothing and furniture. It’s not uncommon to find Banana Republic, J. Crew and Theory pieces with the tags still on for just $4.
  2. Put technology to work: While Goodwill and Salvation Army are thrifting treasures, there are other thrift shops around that offer great deals too. Use thethriftshopper.com to find new thrift shops near you, complete with their location, hours and weekly specials.
  3. Get outside your comfort zone: It’s never a good idea to go thrifting with a definitive mindset. Instead of looking for a “purple blouse”, focus on a more general idea like a “work-appropriate blouse.” It helps you keep an open mind as you look for beautiful things in good condition.
  4. Take advantage of the seasons: When seasons change and milestones hit (like back to school), people tend to clean out their closets and homes, which means thrift shops become a bonanza of great items. Shop now to stock up on school clothes, new furniture or seasonal décor.
  5. Figure out your location’s schedule: Most thrift shops accept and process new stock on the weekends, so Monday through Wednesday is when they’ll have the most selection.
  6. Don’t forget sales: Many people don’t realize that thrift shops have sales too. On certain days, all furniture or clothing will be marked down as much as 50% so check with your local shop for their sale schedule. Some shops also offer discounts for college students, seniors or veterans so be sure to ask about available discounts.
  7. Be strategic: Thrift shops tend to have strict rules about how many items you can bring into a dressing room and leaving an item behind may mean it gets scooped up by someone else. Wear form fitting clothes so you can try on sweaters, coats and blazers right over your outfit to skip the dressing room entirely.
  8. Be thorough: Be sure to check the garment all over for stains, tears or holes. Bring a to-go stain remover like Tide to Go Sticks to test if stains can be easily washed out.
  9. Imagine blank slates: Try to see past the initial item. That wardrobe may have plenty of signs of wear, but with a little work it could look modern and new. Paint, new handles or hardware can make that $10 piece of furniture look like an expensive addition to your home. Pinterest can provide great ideas on how to easily (and cheaply!) repurpose thrift store finds.
  10. Make sure you need it: It’s easy to get too excited by the bargains. When you get 10 shirts for $30, it can be tempting to load up the shopping cart. But even at bargain prices, it’s a waste of your hard-earned money if they won’t get used regularly and if you don’t love them. Shop thoughtfully.

Finally, remember to give back to the thrift stores you shop! After closet or home purges, drop off gently used items at your local store so that other people can share in the experience and savings too.

Heart of Florida United Way is focused on addressing the five major building blocks of financial stability in order to provide low-income working families the services and support necessary to succeed. For more information visit www.hfuw.org or if you are in need of assistance, call 2-1-1, our 24-hour information and assistance helpline.

Preparing for a Disaster

August 10, 2015

HurricaneIt’s been ten years since Florida experienced a devastating hurricane. With such a long gap, it’s easy to forget just how devastating a hurricane can be and get lax in emergency preparedness.

We never know when or where a storm will hit, so it’s important to be prepared at all times.

Preparing for a Hurricane:

  • Make sure you have a family plan: Depending on when a storm hits, your family may not be all together. Kids could be in school or you could be at work, so you’ll need a plan on how to contact each other and where to meet. The Florida Division of Emergency Management offers the “Get a Plan” site, where they offer personalized advice and recommendations to develop a plan based on your family and location.
  • Register on the Florida Special Needs Registry if applicable: Those with special needs should register with the local emergency management agency in order to receive assistance during a disaster. To sign up, visit the Florida Special Needs Registry
  • Update your insurance policy: Not all home and renter insurance policies cover flood damage, so be sure your policy does. Take an inventory of items in your home, including photos of valuables, and keep them in a water-proof container or safe. Better yet, save an electronic copy on Google Drive or another cloud storage system so you can access your documents even if you cannot get back into your home.
  • Prepare a home emergency kit: Keep non-perishable foods, a manual can-opener, batteries, first-aid kit, flashlights, a crank radio, bottled water, blankets, and important documents in a secure container. It’s a good idea to set aside 5 days of water and food to prepare for the worst. If you have pets, make sure you have food and water set aside for them as well. Since credit card machines and ATMs may not be working during a disaster, it also is a good idea to keep an emergency stash of cash in your kit to get you through the first few days.
  • Fill up containers: If a storm is incoming, fill up the bathtub and other large containers with as much water as you can. In case of power and system loss, you can use this water for washing, cooking and even flushing the toilet.
  • Stay inside: During a hurricane, stay inside and get into a room in your home with no windows, even if that is a closet or bathroom. Use your emergency crank radio to stay updated on the storm and when it is safe to come out.
  • Evacuate when ordered: If an evacuation is ordered for your area, leave immediately! Delaying could make it impossible to get to safety or for emergency personnel to reach you. Channel News 13 offers a directory of shelters in your area. United Way’s Information and Assistance Helpline 2-1-1 will also be able to direct you to sand-bag locations, shelters and other disaster information.

In addition to providing critical information about evacuation routes, shelters and resources prior to a major storm, United Way’s 2-1-1 also helps residents find assistance with food, water, debris removal, power restoration and other critical needs in the immediate aftermath. During times of disaster, 2-1-1 also coordinates response efforts with Emergency Operations Centers in Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties, as well as local agencies that provide help with food, shelter and other essential services. 2-1-1 is available by phone, chat, text and email. For more information, visit the 2-1-1 website.

10 Tips to Get Ready for Back to School

August 4, 2015

Back-to-SchoolIt’s somehow August already, which means summer is winding down and the school year is looming closer and closer. Gone are the leisurely mornings and calm afternoons; instead, days will be filled with blaring alarm clocks, last-minute lunches and dashes for the bus.

Make the transition easier on your kids (and yourself) with some preparation and organization. With some pre-planning, you can set your child up for a successful school year.  Here are our top tips for getting ready for back to school:

  1. Do early morning practice runs: Instead of waiting for the first day to enforce bedtimes and early alarms, start getting your family on the school schedule a week or two before the big day. Get your kids used to going to bed earlier, get them up at the same time they’d have to get up for school and get everyone on the morning routine. By getting the whole family used to the schedule, you’ll save yourself from a lot of bleary-eyed mornings.
  2. Create a command center: It doesn’t have to be elaborate or especially pretty, but a command center by the front door can be essential to your family getting out the door with everything they need. Keep a calendar by the door with everyone’s schedule, keep a file organizer for permission slips and forms and use a dry erase board to write down important reminders like “Remember your clarinet for band practice!” Get some great ideas on the Heart of Florida United Way Pinterest page. 
  3. Make a (slim) shopping list: It is a truth universally acknowledged that children double in size over the summer and new school clothes can wreak havoc on your budget. Have your child try on the clothes they have so you can see firsthand what needs replacing before you head to the mall. From there, you can make a list of what’s really needed. If you prepare in advance, you can even scour thrift shops and consignment shops to get the best deals.
  4. Shop strategically: School supplies can be overwhelming and expensive. Make sure you have your child’s back to school list before you start and compare sales. The earlier you shop, the better chances you’ll score a good deal. If you can’t afford new school supplies, there are community resources available. Local organizations may be able to help you get the supplies you need; call 2-1-1 if you need help to get connected.
  5. Partner up: Many of the school supplies on your child’s list can be purchased cheaply in bulk. Partner with another student’s parents and see if you can split the costs of construction paper, notebooks and more.
  6. Gather necessary paperwork: Some schools require extensive paperwork, from physical exams to proof of vaccinations. Check with your child’s school to see exactly what you need so you’re not scrambling Monday morning.
  7. Ruthlessly Simplify: What makes mornings the hardest? Do you have one child who just can’t get out of bed? Is breakfast slowing everything down? Evaluate the pain points and try to simplify the process. Lay out breakfast dishes and supplies the night before. Pick out clothes and iron them and hang them on each child’s door before they go to bed. Come up with a bathroom schedule to keep everyone on track. And perhaps a fun alarm clock placed on the other side of the room can help coax a sleepy child out of bed.
  8. Create a homework station: Make homework-time easier by creating a homework station where your child does his work—either at his own desk or on the kitchen table. Use a small drawer or serving tray to corral everything your child needs: pens, pencils, paper, erasers, calculator, scissors, labels and highlighters. Having it all in one place will keep your child from getting distracted while searching for supplies.
  9. Set a homework time: Schedule a set time each day for your child to complete her work when you’ll be available to help. Keeping it to a set time will ensure it gets done and leave plenty of time for relaxation.
  10. Do a test drive: The first day of school is not the time to find out that your usual path has construction or that traffic adds 15 minutes to the regular route. Do a practice run to figure out how much time your child needs to get to school and add 5-10 minutes on as a buffer just in case.

Happy New School Year!

Heart of Florida United Way believes education, both in and out of the classroom, is a lifelong experience and the most influential factor in ensuring a child will grow up to succeed.  To help ensure children get the education they deserve, we fund many programs in the area that provide essentials for children, such as mentoring and tutoring services, literacy initiatives, food pantries, medical services and clothing. To get help, please call the 2-1-1 Information and Assistance line. For more information about how Heart of Florida United Way invests in education, visit our website.  

Volunteer Spotlight: Marie Martinez

July 23, 2015

MARTINEZ Marie007Interviewing Marie Martinez is like interviewing a force of nature—she is filled with vivacity and overflowing with passion. When asked about her work and volunteerism, she stops abruptly.

“It’s hard to sum up what it means to me,” she said. “So let me tell you a story. There was a parent here who had a child named Mike who was 18 months old. He wasn’t making eye contact. He would spin and spin if she didn’t stop him. And during a busy party, he never stopped looking at the ceiling fan in the room rather than look at his mom or anyone who came to celebrate.  Everyone kept telling her she was paranoid. That it was cute, a phase or that he’d grow out of it.

The mother was referred to our Developmental Center program and he was diagnosed with autism. She was afraid and had that moment of panic, thinking ‘I’ll never dance with my son at his wedding.’

But we have a wide range of programs and services that can help. And she took advantage of those—and we made a difference. He’s six now, and he crawls into her bed every morning to cuddle and tells her how much he loves her. He’s succeeding at school. He has great friends and he rides his bike. And unless services like ours existed, that wouldn’t have been possible. Helping children like Mike makes it all worth it.”

As the Operations Manager of the Howard Phillips Center for Children & Families, Marie is dedicated to helping children. It’s a lifelong focus for her, spending the past 20 years working as an advocate for children in the community.

With Marie at the helm of the Howard Phillips Center, the focus has always been on prevention instead of intervention for children’s welfare. That makes her a natural fit as a supporter and volunteer with Heart of Florida United Way.

Why is child welfare so important to you?

In Orange County alone, there were 14,000 cases of abuse among children and families last year. That’s the second highest in Florida. And that has to change.

By providing a safe place for children, a place where kids feel comfortable, we help kids recover and help prevent abuse from ever happening in the first place. The Howard Phillips Center for Children & Families has six programs available that served over 15,000 families last year. From the Healthy Families Program, which helps prevent abuse before it starts, to the United Way-funded Teen Xpress Mobile Healthcare Clinic, we ensure children are healthy, cared for and prepared to take on the world.

Why is United Way important to you?

Quite frankly, the United Way is important to me because it has been a great supporter of the Howard Phillips Center. The United Way’s dedication and focus on prevention is evidence of a community leader that is willing to stand up and make a difference in our community. The impact of what we will accomplish together continues to be measured, but we already know that we are moving the needle and making sustainable change. It’s easy to support the United Way—they support change.

What is one word you would use to describe United Way?

I can’t pick just one! Support. Uplifting. Partner. Network. It all comes together because of the United Way’s work; we succeed with the United Way and identify new ways to help families.

What motivates you to volunteer?

It’s important to me to give back to the community, to make a difference and to live with purpose. I gain great meaning and fulfillment from helping children and families. By helping out, we can impact the community for the long-term.

Desk Emergency Kits (For Women)

July 21, 2015


We all know those flawless women who can spend the day in a slim white sheath and look impeccable no matter how stressful  the day is. For the rest of us, sodas explode. Coffees get spilled. And clothes insist on wrinkling.

With some preparation, you too can trick people into thinking you’re that constantly flawless person.  A small and functional desk emergency kit can help you stay polished and be known as the office savior.

While the collection sounds extensive, most of the items can be purchased at the local dollar store or drugstore. With a cheap utensil organizer, everything will neatly fit into a drawer.

  • Lint brush-For when your dog’s hair magically appears
  • Downy Wrinkle -For when the meticulous button down you put on this morning turns out to look like you crumpled it by noon
  • Bandaids-For paper cuts or when your shoes cause blisters
  • Tide To Go Instant Stain Remover- For when mustard gets on your shirt the day of the big meeting
  • Safety pins—For when your hem tears
  • Clear nail-polish-For when you get a run in your tights
  • Goody hair elastics-For when it rains on your freshly-straightened hair
  • Bobby pins-See above
  • Deodorant-For when you’re pulling a late night
  • Toothbrush, toothpaste, and floss-For the days when onion bagels are necessary
  • Medicine-Aspirin, Dayquil, Allergy pills, Neosporin, Alka Seltzer, eye drops, etc.: For the days when work just has to get done
  • Cough drops-same as above
  • Small makeup bag-For when you need a quick touch up if you do wear makeup
  • Hairspray-For when your hair turns into a humidity wreck
  • Snacks-granola bars, tea, MIO drink mix, and chocolate for the days you can’t escape your desk

If you have the space, some other things to consider keeping on hand:

  • Black blazer-For when you have an unexpected meeting
  • A black cardigan-For when the office AC goes crazy
  • Black pumps-For when you have that important meeting and want to step it up
  • Black flats-For when your feet ache from those black pumps and need a break
  • Small studs-For when you’ve raced out the door and need some accessorizing to look pulled together

This stockpile will help keep you looking polished, even if tomato soup went everywhere. What else are we missing? Share in the comments what must-haves you have at your desk.


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