Be a Herald Angel: Help Will County United Way help those in need

Sarah Oprzedek, United Way of Will County: ‘I don’t know anyone who is not experiencing need’

According to the US Bureau and Labor Statistics, study released in May 2022, the average mean wage of waiters and waitress in Illinois was $31,750.

Will County has a 7% poverty rate, according to Sarah Oprzedek, president and chief executive officer of United Way of Will County.

But once ALICE numbers are added, that rate jumps to more than 30%, Oprzedek said.

ALICE is the acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. In Will County, 23% of the community are ALICE households — individuals or families who cannot afford their basic living expenses, despite working, Oprzedek said.

“I don’t know anyone who is not experiencing need, that’s for sure,” Oprzedek said.

Basic living expenses include child care, food, health care, housing, transportation and technology, according to ALICE.

“They are working, oftentimes working multiple jobs simply to make ends meet,” Oprzedek said. “They simply don’t have enough disposable income … people are willing to do what they need to do in order to provide support for themselves and their families. And with inflation, it simply isn’t enough.”

Since 1997, the Herald Angels campaign has made local residents’ lives a little better during the holiday season. Every dollar donated to Herald Angels supports the initiatives of United Way community partners, “to make sure our residents have access to the services that they need,” Oprzedek said.

“When the community comes together, we can make great things happen,” Oprzedek said.

Because basic living expenses are “rising across the board,” United Way of Will County is receiving more requests for funding for food-related programs, she said.

Canned goods sit stacked in the parking lot at Joliet Junior College as volunteers load a car with groceries on Saturday, Oct. 21. With inflation and rising food costs, Northern Illinois Food Bank held a Free PopUp Grocery Distribution giving away groceries to 700 families.

Because more people are using food pantries to free up money for other bills, she said.

“That’s how families are able to keep the lights on or pay the rent or pay the mortgage,” Oprzedek said.

“People are willing to do what they need to do in order to provide support for themselves and their families. And with inflation, it simply isn’t enough.”

—  Sarah Oprzedek, president and chief executive officer of United Way of Will County

Just one illness can snap a tightly stretched budget: extra gas to quick care, co-pays, medication costs, loss of income due to the illness, follow-up visits, she said.

That’s why United Way’s community partnerships are vital, she said.

“It ensures that, when life knocks you down, you’ve got a support system to build you back up,” Oprzedek said.

Still people wrestle in asking for help. And they certainly don’t want to publicly share how they were helped to encourage others to donate, she said.

“A lot of times, that’s hard for people to do,” Oprzedek said.

But more people in need means less people are able to help.

Why need is up and donations are down

Oprzedek said the pandemic “crippled” many community-based organizations with a tremendously increased demand for services, and many are still in “re-build mode.”

“And that demand isn’t going away,” Oprzedek said. “A lot of United Ways, including us, have seen a decline in the number of donations even though the need is increasing.”

For those not in need, inflations eats into their ability to donate.

“That disposable income, a lot of times, was where their philanthropic giving came from,” Oprzedek said.

Even organizations collecting toys for children are also seeing donations down, “which I feel is the sign of the times,” she said. Groups that once gave each child three to five toys may only give two to three this year, she said.

To streamline giving, United Way of Will County will post a list on its website of community partners’ holiday initiatives, such as toy collections or food drives for holiday baskets, she said.

“This will make it easy for people throughout the season of giving to help,” Oprzedek said.

Sarah Oprzedek, United Way of Will County CEO, speaks at a United Way private event at the Jacob Henry Mansion on Thursday, February 23rd, 2023 in Joliet.

More people are also opting to donate directly to causes they support, which also reduces donations to United Way, she said.

“United Way is simply one they can select in a drop-down box with every other organization that is registered with the IRS,” Oprzedek said.

But donating to United Way is an efficient way to help.

“We know our partners; they’re the ones on the front line,” Oprzedek said. “They’re the first point of entry for someone who is in need.”

And yet, there are times “when the funding runs out, when a grant has not been renewed or when donations are down,” she said.

When that happens, people are turned away and “it’s devastating to have to do that,” Oprzedek said. “We see it every year.”

Problems United Way helps solve

United Way of Will County helped people save on prescription costs through SingleCare, a prescription drug discount card that’s available to Will County individuals and families, Oprzedek said.

Last year SingleCare grew 9% in prescriptions cost savings and usage rose 7%, Oprzedek said. Prescription savings rose to $823,437 in prescription cost, Oprzedek said. In all, SingleCare helped 8,086 people access prescription medication, she said.

The 211 initiative, a free, multi-lingual, confidential, 24/7 information and referral service, has grown 30% each quarter, Oprzedek said. Since 211 launched in June 2022, more than 4,000 people have sought community-based health and human services and made 12,568 connections, she said.

Diaper Depot usage has grown 184% in the last year, Oprzedek said. Diaper Depot, a free, community-based diaper program that provides 25 pre-packaged diapers, per child per month, distributed 120,444 diapers to families in need, Oprzedek said.

The NDBN Diaper Check 2023: Diaper Insecurity among U.S. Children and Families said 47% of families reported diaper need in 2023 with 46% reducing other expenditures to afford diapers. Reductions in occurred in food budgets (35%) and 28% reporting they skip meals.

How to donate to Herald Angels

Make your check payable to the United Way of Will County, and write “Herald Angels” in the memo line.

Mail to The Herald-News, 1100 Essington Road, Ste. 4, Joliet, IL 60435.

Every dollar will be donated directly to the United Way of Will County.