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ESL Gives United Way $5M Grant for New Approach to Fighting Poverty

Patti Singer

Faheem Masood, left, president and CEO of ESL Federal Credit Union, and Jaime Saunders, president and CEO of United Way of Greater Rochester, announce
a $5 million grant to the United Way.
Photo by Patti Singer/Minority Reporter Media Group.

For some people, a flat tire is a nuisance. For others, it can mean going into debt, losing a shift at work or perhaps the job.

“People have challenges in front of them that can be debilitating,” said Jaime Saunders, president and chief executive of the United Way of Greater Rochester.

The organization that supports 75 programs from multiple agencies that provide help to the working poor is taking a different approach to improving quality of life for people who are living in poverty.

United Way is receiving $5 million from the ESL Charitable Foundation to address what individuals say are their most pressing needs. The grant is the largest philanthropic gift to the United Way.

The grant will be separated into two categories:

  • $4 million to the new Project Uplift, which starting in January will cover unexpected expenses or a bill that can be barrier to economic stability for Monroe County residents who are clients of United Way’s partner agencies. Clients submit documentation of the expense and payment goes to the vendor.
  • $1 million to enhance the Housing Stability initiative, which provides lease down payments, rent assistance, foreclosure prevention or other critical housing challenges. Approximately half the grant will be used in Monroe County and the other half will be implemented through United Way partners in Genesee, Livingston, Ontario, Orleans and Wayne counties.

The funding is through July, but the grant won’t expire if it hasn’t been spent. If the money runs out sooner, Saunders said United Way will reassess.

“The poverty level for a family of four is under $25,000,” Saunders said. “Families that make $26,000 still are struggling.”

She said to be considered self-sufficient and not need any public assistance, a family of four would need to make about $65,000. “There’s a big range of individuals who could benefit from services.”

Saunders said families would be capped at how much they receive, but there are no rules about what types of expenses would be covered. She said care coordinators at the partner agencies will be responsive to an individual or family.

“We want to learn what people’s needs are,” Saunders said. From now until January, United Way is working with its network to develop the program.

Individuals or families not receiving services can call 211 Helpline go learn about agencies that can meet their needs.

“We are enthusiastic about this significant commitment to Project Uplift and the Housing Stability initiative because we believe in their potential to have significant impact on individuals and families in our community,” said Faheem Masood, president and CEO of ESL Federal Credit Union. “The importance of these funds … cannot be overstated.”

The idea for Project Uplift came from conversations that United Way and ESL Federal Credit Union have had as part of the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative.

While most programs administered through human service agencies are dictated by terms of grants and have little room for discretionary spending, Project Uplift essentially puts the individual in charge. At its core, Project Uplift is an opportunity to learn from people living with limited means about their financial barriers while at the same time continuing the work of RMAPI on addressing systemic issues of poverty.

“The intent is to reduce pain and barriers for people today,” Saunders said. “We have an incredible corporate partner who is in a position to help a whole lot of people. … We have to adjust what we’re used to, which is I’ll invest these dollars and this will happen and we’ll all go over the rainbow. Our issues are much more complicated, much more entrenched than that. So do we choose to wait until everything aligns and we address all these complex challenges, or do do we still address that, put our shoulder behind long term change and at the same time not forget about the needs of today. That’s what this is about.”

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