MEET JENNIFER GLEASON, UNITED WAY LEADER FREED FROM DEBT THANKS TO UW'S FINANCIAL EMPOWERMENT INITIATIVE.
"Last year, more than 150,000 people were referred to vital services with support from United Way. Nine years ago, I was one of them.
Growing up in a large family in suburban Massachusetts, from the outside, it always appeared that I had it together. But at home, things were tough. Due to some difficult financial circumstances, my father rejoined the family trucking business when I was young, which forced him to spend weeks and sometimes months at a time on the road. This left my mom, a clerical worker who was born in a refugee camp following the Holocaust, alone raising four kids. Thank goodness for Hamburger Helper.
I got my first job the year I was old enough to get working papers and soon worked multiple part-time gigs in addition to trying to succeed in school. Parking garage attendant, McDonald’s employee, daycare worker, dishwasher, babysitter – I did it all to help my family. When it came time for college, I was lucky to get a Pell Grant to help cover some costs, but like many Americans, I was forced to take out loans to continue my education.
By the time I started working at United Way, I was in a situation all too common among young people in our country: up to my eyeballs in student loans and racked with massive credit card bills. At 27 years old I was deciding whether I should pay my electric bill or buy food. I was grateful for the days my team hosted events at our office because I could pack up the leftover food. My choices were limited, and I was seriously considering throwing in the towel and moving back home. The idea of being a homeowner or providing for a family someday was completely out of reach.
Luckily, when I arrived at United Way, my desk was next to the staff person who managed our Financial Empowerment work, which supports a regional network of organizations helping people rewrite their financial futures. At a team meeting, I learned about one of our partners, Clarifi, an incredible organization that among many other things, offers financial literacy and asset-building services. Calling Clarifi saved my life. I enrolled in their debt management program, which provided a personal financial counselor to help me develop and stick to a budget and offered credit counseling and consolidation services that were far better than those offered by the sea of predatory lenders and debt payoff companies out there.
It took years of working multiple jobs – United Way during the day and bartending most nights – to finally pay off my debt, but today I’m proud to say I’m free.
Free from the constant daily stress of not knowing how I would pay my rent and still have enough money to pay my bills. Free from the oppressive weight that I know so many of my Philadelphia neighbors continue to carry every day.
This shouldn’t be our reality. Together we can change the narrative – by directing our resources to fight poverty in Philadelphia, we can break the cycle of intergenerational poverty and provide hope and opportunity for those in our community who need and deserve it.
Today I have the incredible privilege and honor to be leading an initiative designed to do what United Way does best – bridge the nonprofit, corporate, and philanthropic sectors to collectively address the social, economic, and racial barriers and systems that are holding this City back. At SVP Philadelphia, an offering of United Way, we are bringing people together who want to contribute not only their financial resources, but their time and talent as well, to support and amplify the work of organizations and frontline leaders who are applying the most innovative solutions to these issues. Poverty is a complex social problem that no single policy, program or sector can solve. Systems change won’t happen overnight – it requires all of us pooling resources and working shoulder to shoulder. I hope my story helps you to see just how United Way can help make this happen.
Since the day I started working at United Way almost 10 years ago, I have been truly inspired by the incredible impact our work has on the lives of so many people throughout our region. Just this past year we invested $14.8 million and supported more than 150 community partners in our region through The Impact Fund to strengthen our youth, families, and communities. A key part of United Way’s work is vetting and funding the best and most innovative nonprofits to provide high-quality services and resources to those who need them most. When you donate to United Way, people like the colleague who helped me are equipped with the tools needed to do this important work. Through its network of community partners, United Way helped over 11,200 individuals receive financial counseling last year like the kind I received back in 2012. Now, that’s real Impact."
Follow along with our year-long #StrongerTogetherSeries as we feature insights and personal stories of the very people and bodies of work that have made us 100-years strong.