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United Way Of The Big Bend Weathered First Pandemic Round Surprisingly Well

United Way of the Big Bend President/CEO Berneice Cox
United Way of the Big Bend
United Way of the Big Bend President/CEO Berneice Cox

At the start of the pandemic, many Tallahassee non-profits feared their donations and future were in jeopardy. But the area's largest not-for-profit funder reports a totally different picture quickly emerged.
That organization is the United Way of the Big Bend, where Berneice Cox has been the president and CEO since late 2019. She said a COVID response there was quick in coming.

"Whenever we had our first cases, we started a COVID-19 relief fund and quickly were able to raise money for that while we were simultaneously running our campaign. We were able to get $240,000 into the community. And the agencies have told me this and I'm sharing it; it was the most simple application for funding we've ever had, basically a one-page application."

But Cox said cash wasn't the only resource many of the United Way's participating agencies needed.

"And we found that they needed supplies. Infant diapers were hard to find, cleaning supplies and the list goes on. We were able to connect our corporate partners and get supplies. And we started to deliver them out to our non-profits and neighboring counties. We had to go by caravan at that time. We couldn't even ride together, so our team members had to take their own cars and driving by caravan to deliver these supplies out into the community."

Still, it's ultimately funding that keeps human service non-profits alive. Cox said United Way didn't avail itself of the initial availability of some COVID connected outside money, although it is involved with what's happening now.

"We did not apply for the 'Leon Cares' funding. But now we're in a partnership with Leon County and the City of Tallahassee on the American Rescue Plan Act. That's another announcement that's coming out. We won't be allocating; that's up to the City and County. But we will be assisting applicants, not only our funded program partners, but any agency that needs assistance in filling out those applications. We'll have team members who are working on that as well."

But here's the bottom line. While organizations like the United Way were at first fearful that the pandemic would restrict both their operating cash and their functions, Cox said the opposite has occurred.

"We're actually leaning in and thriving with $4.2 million the total impact during this past year in our community, we're talking about our communities and the grants that we've had where we impact Reading Pals and Math Pals and Smile United and VITA, the Volunteer Income Tax program."

That free tax preparation service, explained Cox, picked up many new clients when alternatives like the AARP program went dark. Ultimately, it mean much-needed refund cash for area seniors and others who needed it.

"We have found it actually brings more dollars back into their homes. Folks who actually do this, and they're IRS-trained to do this. Last year and previous years it was about 1,000 clients that we served. This year, it was well over 1,400."

However, it's not only the area's non-profits that Cox believes have learned valuable lessons from having to cope with the pandemic.

"I think we've thrived as a community in some ways. I feel, and I'm not delusional, that the opportunity for siloes to be broken down and for folks who didn't used to get along to partner together, that should have been blown wide open with COVID because we were all in this together as a community, all experiencing it. Even businesses that were impacted and we didn't know the whole story, were still supportive and caring and giving during this time. It's an incredible story to tell!"

Especially, added Cox, when she personally contacted various local businesses, not to hit them up for donations, but just to see how they were weathering the storm.

"There were emotional conversations that we had. And in some cases we just didn't know how it would impact that business or their businesses. And also as we looked at our friends in the government agencies. They had the opportunity to look at some CARES Act funding, so there was light at the end of the tunnel for them. I also want to give huge props to how the City and County responded with Blueprint dollars, not only to non-profits, but also the business community. They did that fairly quickly and it's usually challenging for government to respond that quickly and I'm proud of the way they handled that as well."

Cox also had a special thanks for her more immediate colleagues.

"Our team here at the United Way, I'd love to give a huge shout-out to this family I get to work with every single day. We are a small but mighty team. The reason they're so good is because they really care. They have a heart for what they do and I'm just privileged to work with them every single day."

All amazingly positive news from an organization that was bracing for the worst just a few months into last year.

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Tom Flanigan has been with WFSU News since 2006, focusing on covering local personalities, issues, and organizations. He began his broadcast career more than 30 years before that and covered news for several radio stations in Florida, Texas, and his home state of Maryland.

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