2021 Society of Innovators Inductee Profile: United Way of Northwest Indiana

December 22, 2021

United Way of Northwest Indiana helps struggling families by ensuring access to community health, education and financial stability services. In a single year, more than 22% of Northwest Indiana households are helped by United Way programs.

Innovation: Level Up

By seeking input from the community, United Way of Northwest Indiana launched the Level Up program, an innovative, collaborative, customer-centric model to connect low-income working families with better paying jobs, training, financial wellness strategies and basic needs resources. The team built a new infrastructure and implemented a shared case management system that enables automatic referrals to other organizations, eliminating duplication of services and building a collaborative network of providers.

What is the Level Up program?

Andrea Proulx-Buinicki: First, you need to understand that the United Way helps families thrive. One of the ways we wanted to do this was by helping people access better paying jobs. We focused on a particular population of folks, researchers call them ALICE: an acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. These are folks who are hardworking individuals, they are employed, but they’re underemployed. We knew that if we were able to zero in and help them access better paying jobs, we could really help lift a family into self sufficiency.

We started Level Up in 2019 and there are three key areas of the program. First is working with someone on job coaching and helping them figure out what they want to do with their life, with their career. Second is focusing on financial coaching. That could be anything from getting out of debt or repairing your credit, to starting savings, to even owning a new home. Finally, undergirding all of that we’re supporting that family with basic needs, assistance that’s available to them out in the community, or through resources from the United Way campaign.

One key for all of this to work is quality, affordable childcare. Quality, affordable childcare is a workforce issue. You can’t go to work if you don’t have a place where you feel safe leaving your children, and where they’re stimulated, where they’re challenged in their developmental progress. We know if we invest in quality, affordable childcare, we’re helping that next generation become successful in school and become successful later in life.

What is something you wish more people knew about the families the Level Up program is serving?

Talisa Rogers-Hall: That they want to do better. That they want to be the best that they can be. They also want to contribute to their environment. They want to contribute to their community and have wonderful neighborhoods for their children to stay in.

What makes the Level Up program different and unique from what other nonprofit groups may be doing?

Jessica Callard: We walk alongside families and help them navigate the systems. We’re also helping change the systems along the way. Through Level Up, we help our families navigate. We want them to be self-sufficient, we want them to stand on their own, we show them what they need to do. We make a phone call with them, we model for them, we advocate for them, and we navigate for them.

That’s inherently different from any other program that I’ve personally worked with or encountered in almost 20 years of this work. That side-by-side navigation and the cheerleading component. We know that when one of our clients is experiencing an overwhelmingly stressful time, we’re there to talk it through with them, and we work with them. Those components are so different from what a lot of organizations out there are doing.

Andrea: Another thing that makes this program unique is that it was developed to really understand what the barriers are that this population is facing. It was a pilot program in 2019, but it was launched on a foundation of community input and significant listening throughout our community. We held community listening sessions. We developed working groups that were made up of employers, service providers and ALICE families themselves. 

We were also bold enough to say that when the current systems in place weren’t working, “How can we change what is not working in the system and help families navigate so that they can achieve the success that they deserve?”

Are there any Level Up success stories you can share?

Talisa: Yes, we had a client who came into the program with her husband and her two children. They were struggling to find livable wage jobs. Then, they went through our training program, but in the midst of that, her husband passed away. They began to struggle even worse. She went through her training and she was successful in that. Her goal with her husband was to buy a home, and they had struggled so long for that. She recently closed on her first home. She’s one of those folks who you just root for because she’s had so many negative things happen. But she still kept her faith, she still kept her joy even through all of the struggles that she’s had.

Jessica: We also had a gentleman who is married and has five young children at home. When he came to us, the most he had ever made was nine-something an hour. He had a will to do better for his family. They had a lot of struggles, and he really wanted to improve the quality of life. They were living in a two bedroom apartment, the seven of them. He came to us, he went through training, he obtained several certifications and got a better paying job that was almost double what he was making prior with full benefits, which were sorely needed for his family. He also purchased a home recently that has enough backyard space for all five of the children. That was very exciting.

What does it mean to you to have United Way of Northwest Indiana receive this recognition?

Andrea: Being inducted into the Society means not only recognition of the work we did, but it is recognition of the innovation that ripples throughout the program. The innovation of coming together as a community to identify some of the challenges and barriers to helping struggling families thrive. I’m also just really proud of the innovation that our families are able to accomplish. They recognize that something in their life isn’t working, so they make that commitment to figure it out with a navigator, to figure out how to change what they’re doing, to change their behavior so that they can have a successful life.

I’m also really proud of the team. It took remarkable patience and flexibility by everyone so that we could figure out what we needed to do to best serve the families. That takes some time, that takes some experimentation. I really appreciate that about the team too. There’s always that spirit of “Well, that didn’t work. Let’s try another way.”

Jessica: Hearing about this award is a funny story. We’re always busy, always trying to help families. One day I happened to check my email, scanning really quickly, and I paused and I said, “Oh, what’s this? We won an award.” I say that jokingly, but serious because every single day I know we go to work and our focus is the families that we work with. It’s how to help them improve their lives, help them thrive, help them change the systems for all the ALICE families in Northwest Indiana.

When you work in that kind of field, it’s not about recognition. I think what I’m most excited about, when it comes to this award, is that now the community can hear about what it is that we’re doing. I’m really grateful about our team winning this award. We have an amazing team that works awesome together. I know for United Way of Northwest Indiana, it’s an exciting time to be awarded this honor, as we just recently merged, and we will be expanding the program across the region. So, it means much more help for the ALICE families in need.

Talisa: It means that we are helping families. I am excited because we get to include more families. There were folks I had to say no to because they weren’t in my service area. I am now very excited to include those folks in our program. On top of that, the team is key, because this doesn’t work without everybody participating. That is also the folks who’ve graduated, who’ve come and said, “If you need me to help you with other families, we will do that for you because you’ve helped so much.” So we based everything off of the foundation of teamwork. It doesn’t work with one person. It works with all of us collectively.

What is something you wish more people knew about Northwest Indiana?

Andrea: I wish people knew how great and resilient the people of Northwest Indiana actually are. When I moved here in 2004, I certainly had an idea of what this region was like. My work with United Way, and my work with other community organizations, has just opened my eyes to see how resilient, and how willing to work, and how beautiful the people of this region really are.

Talisa: I wish people knew that there are so many resources in Northwest Indiana that people just don’t know. Hidden gems and secret societies that people need to know exist. For me, that’s my job to find those hidden gems and to present those resources to the families in need.

Jessica: I wish people knew about the amazing community pride that exists here. You go to different community organizations, schools, and events and it’s magnetic. The communities are vibrant. People really do care about the community members and the residents, and our leaders really do want to improve the lives of the families that live in our communities. There’s not enough credit given to our communities, and how hard they’re trying to continually improve the lives of the families.

What does innovation mean to you?

Jessica: Innovation means looking at a system, looking at a community, looking at an organization, whatever the case may be, and saying, “What can we do to make this organization, this program, the best that it can possibly be?” And not being afraid to think outside the box, not being afraid to try something new and fail, because that’s going to happen. We’re going to try, we’re going to fail, but we’re going to learn from it. When you try and fail, the next time around is so much better. You just continue to build until you go grow something beautiful that benefits everyone in your community.

Talisa: For me, innovation is helping a family over their fear. When we try something new, we can move further than where we are. We don’t have to stand and tread water. We can move further into the ocean than we thought we could. Most of the time, it’s not that we don’t know what to do, it’s that we are fearful that it’s not going to work, and that there’s nobody to catch us if we fall. We’re there to catch our families. We’re there to support them through that process.

Andrea: Innovation takes courage. It takes courage to say that there’s an issue, there’s a challenge, there’s a break in the system, and to commit to solving it.

United Way of Northwest Indiana was a 2021 team inductee into the Society of Innovators at Purdue Northwest. Team members include Andrea Proulx-Buinicki, (former) Vice President, Community Impact; Jessica Callard, Level Up Team Manager; Grace Morin, Family Career & Financial Wellness Navigator; Talisa Rogers-Hall, Family Career Navigator & Trainer; and Claire Schapker, Community Impact Associate. A full list of 2021 inductees can be found here.