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Where there's a will, there's the United Way

The Council of Community Services is one of many nonprofit organizations in Campbell County that provides life-sustaining — and in some cases live-saving — assistance to area residents.

If that statement seems a bit overblown, just ask Pancho Carrasco.

Carrasco originally hailed from the Yakama Reservation in Washington state before hitchhiking to Seattle, where he was homeless. At times, he lived under bridges. For meals, he sorted through McDonald’s trash cans looking for wrapped, unused hamburgers.

Three years ago, his life began another change when he decided to hitchhike across the country. On the way to South Dakota, he was picked up by a woman going to Gillette.

“She said, ‘I’ll drop you off in Gillette,’” Carrasco said.

He was brought into town and for the first night slept beneath an underpass. In the morning, however, a few residents picked Carrasco up and told him about the local homeless shelter. They gave him food before taking him to the Council of Community Services.

“I got a ride here and went to the mission (shelter) and they met me,” he said. “I told them I needed help and they gave me a place to stay. They just liked me and they helped me get off the streets.”

The agency helped Carrasco successfully apply for a Section 8 housing choice voucher and find a place to live.

“I got a real house and they helped me get on my feet,” Carrasco said, adding that until then, he didn’t have any concrete life goals. “I don’t know where I would have went.”

Since the announcement in August that United Way of Campbell County’s closure in August, nonprofit groups like the Council of Community Services are doing all they can to maintain their level of services.

Recently, however, the local United Way received news that the United Way of Natrona County agreed to send a letter of intent to the organization’s national office stating it would be willing to act as an umbrella agency for Campbell County starting in January. In other words, they would manage the funds and do the fundraising, then take 10% for administrative costs with the rest of the money staying in Campbell County.

Despite what on the surface seems to be good news for those local nonprofits that benefit from the United Way, the low levels of contributions that forced the Campbell County group to shut down still remains.

That means groups like the Council of Community Services are trying to find ways to raise more money to maintain their current levels of services. If not, employees or programs could be cut and people like Carrasco may potentially never get a chance to turn their lives around.

It was coming

The United Way of Campbell County helped many organizations — the Council of Community Services, Campbell County Head Start, Gillette Abuse Refuge Foundation and the Boys & Girls Club of Campbell County — in various capacities such as uniting resources, providing volunteers and raising awareness. They also allowed people to donate through payroll deductions.

“It’s just a simple, simple way to collect donations for nonprofits in the community,” said Nate Grotrian, Boys & Girls Club of Campbell County executive director. “People know United Way, people are comfortable with United Way, people are comfortable donating to United Way because they know that they’re distributing money off to those agencies and organizations that are in need.”

For a while, the United Way operated on an all-volunteer basis after donations had dropped too much to justify the ongoing expense of paying staff. However, the belt tightened further when companies like now-bankrupt Cloud Peak Energy stopped matching contributions, which caused the agency to decrease what it could give organizations.

The decision to close also was attributed to a change in people’s donating habits, which have gone from giving to United Way to contributing directly to the agencies.

“I think it’s hard for people to just give to something like United Way without really seeing where their money goes,” said Mikel Scott, executive director of the Council of Community Services.

A lot of times people want to volunteer for an organization they are passionate about and see where their donations are going. Maybe that’s a part of why United Way has had a tough go at it the last few years, she said.

“I kind of thought it was coming,” said Shawna McDonald, Gillette Abuse Refuge Foundation prevention education coordinator. “I know with the recession and the economy over the last few years in Campbell County, contributions were down. We knew it was a struggle for them to try and maintain the level of participation that they had previously.”

Game planning

For the nonprofits, the long-term uncertainty of United Way of Campbell County means agencies and organizations have to continue to do more with less.

The Council of Community Services received $60,000 from United Way for the 2019-2020 fiscal year, which runs through June 30. It has received as much as $100,000 from United Way in previous years. Even without interruption, the money from United Way was likely to continue to decrease.

That’s money that goes straight to the bottom line for the Council of Community Services, which uses it for operating expenses like maintaining the Food Pantry and homeless shelters.

“The nice thing about United Way is that you could use it for really anything you applied for,” Scott said. “A lot of the time each year, we would use it to supplement whatever program was not quite hitting its budget or wasn’t fully funded and keep it going.”

Other times it has covered medical expenses. For example, paying for a needed eye procedure and new glasses for Carrasco.

“They helped me,” he said. “If they didn’t help me, how would I get the operation on my eyes? They set everything up with the operation. My life is so much better. I can see, I can read.”

With the uncertainty of funding, the agency may not be able to provide as much for its clients.

“We’re going to have to find replacement monies for it just to keep operating,” Scott said, adding that her board has not discussed cutting programs “as of yet.”

“We’re mostly talking about what we need to do and just starting to work on it,” she said. “The council already has been through a lot of cuts, a lot of grants that have been cut. We’re operating essentially at the baseline of what we can operate at.

“Right now, we’re just concentrating on replacing those funds. I can’t think of one program we can just cut (that) won’t have a massive impact on our community and our clients.”

GARF received about $25,000 to $30,000 a year from United Way, which allowed it to fill some gaps with no strings attached. For example, it helped a single mother in the program pay for work done on her vehicle’s transmission.

“She needs the vehicle to get to work and support her family,” McDonald said.

For Personal Frontiers, the United Way’s $5,000 annual donation helped pay for its operations, Executive Director Donna Morgan said.

“It’s a pretty big chunk of change for a nonprofit,” she said. “We have a hard time making ends meet as it is.”

United Way also helped the Boys & Girls Club of Campbell County to successfully apply for money from the Daniels Fund to perform about $350,000 in building improvements, Grotrian said.

With the declining matching contributions, there was going to be a continued decline in how much organizations would be funded by the local United Way even if it did not announce it would cease operations, said Geno Palazzari, vice chairman of the local United Way.

Working together

Nonprofits operate under tight budgets and any help the United Way of Natrona County can give would be appreciated even though 10% would go back to that office.

Scott said she understands not all the money will remain in Campbell County under the new umbrella, but at this point anything would be more than the nothing that was assured with the United Way shuttered altogether.

If a long-term solution is not found and the United Way of Campbell County does close permanently, then “it’s going to be a lot more work for us to make up that loss, but in the long run work is not always bad,” Grotrian said.

“It keeps us busy, but it also helps us develop those important relationships and those community partnerships, which is important, which is vital for the club sustaining in the future,” he said. “Because if it wasn’t for the community support and the backing of the community, we wouldn’t be where we are at today.”

Agencies have and will continue to find ways to work together, to raise money and be creative.

“You just roll with it and try to stretch your resources as far as possible to help as many people as you can,” McDonald said. “I don’t know if there is someone to fill that void other than through donations and private fundraising.”

“I think the people who work in the social service agencies are absolutely committed to the people of the community and serving them no matter what and will use what they have to meet the needs of the community,” said Wendy Gauntner, Campbell County Head Start Center coordinator. “Our community is receptive to help when people need help.”

“The best thing for us to do is try and collaborate with one another and stay as a whole and make sure we help the people we need to help,” Morgan said.

“It’s a matter of how do we come together to figure that out so we can have those agencies still be as effective as they are,” Gauntner added.

These are some things United Way of Natrona County Executive Director Anna Wilcox wants to know about — along with the United Way of Campbell County’s recent finances and a list of donors — when she comes up to Gillette in January.

Could there be hope?

The United Way of Campbell County will use whatever it has left in its reserves in early 2020 to distribute to local organizations, though those amounts are unknown, Palazzari said.

Whatever the dollar figure is, it will only last for so long.

Despite the United Way of Natrona County’s letter of intent to become the local administrator, the Council of Community Services will continue to operate as it has been.

“We are still going to play it pretty safe just so we’re not over-committing ourselves in our budget to something we don’t know,” Scott said. “We’re going to take it very conservatively, but I’m excited about that news.”

The organization will continue to help people like Carrasco. While he still goes to the Food Pantry once a month to supplement his food supplies as he waits for his Social Security money, he also manages an apartment complex in Gillette and volunteers at the Council of Community Services.

“They didn’t have to help me, but they did,” he said. “They did a lot for me and I want to help more people. The money only goes so far. I would like to see them get more money in the program to help more people.”

The main thing for nonprofits to understand is “there are businesses and organizations within that community who are still looking for ways to support them and if we can help make that happen through the ease of payroll deductions and other unique opportunities we would love to do that for them,” Wilcox said.

It is important to remember the United Way is still “in place to serve” residents and their dollars, she said. “(How can) we be good stewards of those dollars? One of the great successes of the United Way over the years is ensuring a donor that we’re doing that legwork for them.”

Gillette City Councilman and former United Way of Campbell County Treasurer Bruce Brown is trying to put together a committee that would help disburse the money from Natrona County to local organizations like the Council of Community Services, if and when things get going next year.

He said he’ll do everything he can while the agency gets back on its feet.

“I think there’s hope. This is Gillette,” Brown said. “We all pull together when we need to get something done. We need to get it going again. That’s my bottom line.”

County developing strategic plan for Carbon Valley

The term “Carbon Valley” has been used for the last year or two in discussions about the potential future of the Powder River Basin.

But what does it actually mean?

Jim Ford, an energy consultant for Campbell County, is developing a strategic Carbon Valley plan, and that is one of the questions he’s set out to answer.

“We should get to the point where we can explain that clearly and simply when people ask us about that,” he said.

The goal of Carbon Valley is to establish Campbell County as the premier place for the research, development and commercial deployment of advanced carbon technologies, Ford said.

It’s going to take a lot of work to get there.

“Saying things about our hopes and dreams is good, but it’s not as good as doing things,” Ford said.

Projects such as the Advanced Carbon Products Innovation Center and a potential rare earth element research facility are promising, and they have support from the University of Wyoming and the U.S. Department of Energy.

But it’s just as important to get support from the community, Ford said.

“We don’t want to be sitting around in a dark, smoky room making plans and not engaging the voters or the community,” he said.

Community engagement and education should be one of the top priorities once the strategic plan is finalized, Ford said.

Campbell County has to do more than just be open for business. It must demonstrate that commitment as well. It takes time, money and people, he said.

“When we’re ready to dedicate those to these ideas, then those on the outside will start taking it seriously,” he said.

Two of the top people at the University of Wyoming School of Energy Resources are leaving in the next eight months, so the county will have to work to get “rock solid commitment” from the school in the future, Ford said.

The SER would be “the perfect keystone tenant” for ACPIC, he added.

The county also have to figure out how to fund the whole thing.

“There’s a whole lot of things we can do, but without the ability to support those ideas financially, it just doesn’t matter,” he said.

When it comes to capital, the county should facilitate the discussion, said Commissioner Mark Christensen. The money should come from the private sector.

Carbon Valley’s legitimacy will come from state and federal researchers doing their work here, he said. When that happens, the money will come.

When it comes to fossil fuels, federal regulations and the market are moving the needle. It’s out of the county’s control, Ford said.

“The reality around the coal and fossil fuels is our customers of the last decade aren’t buying what we have to sell,” he said. “If we can’t recognize that and recognize they’ve decided that CO2 matters, then shame on us for not opening our eyes.”