For 20 years, Karen Rathke has served Grand Island and its neighbors as president of Heartland United Way.
The nonprofit agency’s mission always has reflected her own mission in life, Rathke said, which is to make a difference in and improve people’s lives however and whenever possible.
Never have the efforts of Rathke and her team been so challenged, though, as during the year of the pandemic.
“When the pandemic first hit, we knew from our response to the floods the year before and our involvement in working with our area communities, that we needed to have everybody on the same page,” she said.
Starting in early March, United Way began to host meetings bringing together health care, businesses, education, first responders and nonprofits.
“We got great information and updates from people who were trying to provide food and emergency assistance and shelter and medical assistance, and on who is doing what, and making sure people were coordinating services and not duplicating them,” Rathke said.
That group continues to meet.
“We’ve moved from that immediate response and relief efforts to some of the recovery and rebuilding phases,” she said. “And we still have that layer of immediate relief, because people are still suffering from the pandemic.”
Right away, Heartland United Way starting getting calls from people who wanted to help.
A Facebook group was launched to help coordinate the requests, called COVID-19 Hall County Response.
“If somebody needed something, like diapers or Tylenol, or a jump-start on their car to get to work, whatever that need was, they could post it in this group and people would respond,” Rathke said. “That grew to, like, 3,700 members.”
In partnership with Greater Grand Island Community Foundation, the COVID Compassion Relief Fund was formed.
The effort raised more than $300,000 to help provide for basic needs such as food, shelter and medical costs, and to support nonprofits facing greater demands for their services.
In the past six months, the situation has improved some.
“There continues to be a need, but we continue to be very connected and respond to those needs,” Rathke said.
HUW is preparing mobilization efforts for when a vaccine becomes available, to be able to get information out and provide support for its distribution.
Helped and helping
For Rathke and her team, meeting the demands of an event as large as a pandemic proved easy because, already, they were doing so many things to help those in need every day.
“I really think the tough work that will be needed to help these communities recover is the very work that United Way does every day,” she said.
“We help those facing food insecurity. We prepare children for success in school, work and life. We connect people who are in financial distress with the resources to pay their bills and stay in their homes.”
She added, “It’s critical that we are there and prepared, and able to response, and ultimately just help our communities through tough times, whatever that might be.”
HUW faced similar challenges with last year’s unprecedented flooding.
“In other years it’s poverty. It’s parents struggling to raise children,” Rathke said. “Our mission is to improve lives and create possibilities. That couldn’t happen if we weren’t so blessed by the generous support of people in our community.”
There are many people who are new to “need,” Rathke said.
“They’ve never maybe had to ask for help before, people who we’re seeing call and come in to submit an application,” she said. “We’re seeing more of those, as maybe they tried to make ends meet and get through it, but now need to rely on some additional support.”
It is untrue that Heartland United Way is a corporate organization, and the dollars it raised go someplace else, Rathke said.
“That’s just not true at all,” she said. “The dollars that you and I donate to support Heartland United Way stay right here in our four county area, and it helps thousands of people. Almost 30,000 people annually, and this year even more.”
‘We learn together’
For Rathke, the aspiration to help others remains as strong as ever.
“You always want to do more. You always think you can do more,” she said. “Needs change, and you think you get ahead of one need and other things come up, so you’re always reinventing and pivoting.”
Heartland United Way’s team members are always ready to meet any challenge, Rathke said.
“They’re always willing to roll up their sleeves and do what needs to be done,” she said. “Were we prepared to respond to floods or the pandemic? Absolutely not! We learn together and we continue to learn together. That’s the difference. You continue to want to be better.”
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