The first time Rebecca Kanaly slept in a homeless shelter, she was 5 years old. Sirens and lights flooded her childhood home after her stepmother fell into a diabetic coma. EMTs revived her, but that night, Kanaly found safety in a local shelter. She remembers it feeling warm, loving and bright as volunteers handed her a teddy bear wearing a shirt saying, “Somebody Loves Me.”
“They gave me hope and promise for a better tomorrow,” Kanaly says. “When I step back, it’s very impactful for me.” As a teen, Kanaly grew up in foster care, which required her o either work or attend summer school. As a result, she held a variety of jobs, from painting a mental health facility to acting as a peer counselor. She credits the system for helping her explore careers through work assignments and personality tests, like the Myers-Briggs.
“Sometimes I think about how many kids end up in jail who don’t graduate or breakthrough, and I feel that those opportunities gave me more than what I would have had otherwise,” Kanaly says. “They provided me with a foundation to thrive.” These days, Kanaly could be earning hundreds of thousands of dollars with her MBA from the University of Denver; she’s already co-founded several nonprofit and for-profit organizations. But her true passion lies in making a difference in the community. In 2014, Kanaly accepted her current position as executive director of United Way of Eagle River Valley (UWERV). Established in 1994, the nonprofit empowers residents by improving three building blocks of opportunity: education, financial stability, and a healthy lifestyle.
A UNITED IMPACT
Worldwide, United Way (UA) has focused on bettering education, financial stability, and health for more than 125 years. Because of the confidence, it has cultivated, the founders of United Way of Eagle River Valley chose the United Way umbrella. “It brings all of the trust and goodwill that’s known from what United Way does to our community,” Kanaly says. “We are connected to the largest federation of nonprofits in the world.” The organization keeps overhead low by tapping into resources the larger nonprofit already provides, such as the 211 nonemergency health and human services call center; free accounts at Constant Contact; performance assessment and marketing tools; and FamilyWize, a prescription discount card. Last year, FamilyWize saved Eagle County residents $7,681 — nearly double over the previous year.
Statistically, Eagle County fares better than state and nationwide numbers in terms of chronic disease and unemployment. “There’s an attitude that people don’t get sick (in our active community), especially with serious problems, so sometimes healthcare is ignored,” Kanaly says, adding that financial numbers are also skewed.
“A $3 million home might be next to a trailer park, so we miss gaps that exist. It’s a matter of closing the gap between the disparaged individual and families … we have a relatively good unemployment rate, but that’s because most residents are working two to three jobs, and even then, they can’t afford a starter home.”
The local nonprofit grants $200,000 to about 35 other local nonprofits, including Eagle Valley Family Assistance Fund, Hospice of the Valley, Help for Victims of Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault, Starting Hearts, Inc., Bravo! Vail, The Samaritan Counseling Center, Vail Valley Charitable Fund and Walking Mountains Science Center.
Mountains Science Center.
In addition, the local UA chapter offers two $10,000 innovation grants. This $20,000 funds new, more effective projects aiding education, financial stability, and health. In 2018, Neighborhood Navigators of Eagle County and Youthentity earned innovation grants. Neighborhood Navigators connects people to local resources and Youthentity offers financial education and career preparation to young people.
Last year, UWERV took over the 54-year-old community rummage sale, with 183 volunteers working more than 3,300 hours and earning a portion of the $22,000 raised at the sale for their chosen charity.
It benefitted 35 organizations, from dance and sports teams to veterans to seniors to horse rescues and much more. But perhaps more importantly, the rummage sale helps families clothe their children and stock up on household and sporting goods. Jennifer Anderson can’t afford to buy her four teenagers new hoodies or expensive jeans, so she relies on the rummage sale.
“My 13-year-old is conscious of how much further she can stretch her money at rummage sales,” Anderson says. “And she likes how it looks and how well it’s made. Last year, all three girls were excited to find matching pink Beaver Creek hoodies.”
PLATFORM FOR PHILANTHROPY
Ninety-nine percent of the money UWERV raises comes from philanthropy. Kanaly considers the nonprofit “your premium platform for philanthropy,” which is why people like Patsy Rowe, a part-time resident, donate to the organization. Rowe respects the board members because they demonstrate qualities she looks for in leaders: intelligence, commitment, and a hard-working ethic.
“It’s an opportunity to meet a wide continuum of needs in one gift,” Rowe says. “We’re a very affluent community, and yet there are many people struggling with finances. It’s easy to be in the cocoon of comfort that we live in, but we need to break through that bubble and help people who do struggle for reasons beyond their control.”
A few years ago, Anderson took in one of her son’s friends, Joe, who was having issues at home. His dad gave Anderson $200 a month, but it wasn’t enough to buy him prescription glasses after teachers noticed he complained of headaches and constantly squinted. Fortunately, through The Literacy Project of Eagle County, which the UWERV supports, Anderson was able to get a voucher to cover the eye exams and a good portion of the glasses.
To Kanaly, the slogan “Live United” means: helping each other out, especially in moments of vulnerability. “I grew up the beneficiary of many types of programs, and it meant so much to me,” she says. “It’s so moving to me that I can help others in the same way I was helped, be it food, shelter, clothing, youth development, career development or empowerment. I am just so passionate about the idea of my work making a big difference in our community, and the world.”