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Pooler Magazine



Story by Katrice Williams | Photos Supplied by Michelle Holloway

Abrupt change, enormous uncertainty and widespread fear can obviously impact the livelihood of many individuals. Even more, when these things are faced within the climate of a pandemic, it can be challenging to see the light at the end of the tunnel; however, it is there.

For nearly six decades, United Way of the Coastal Empire (UWCE) has persisted to aid those in need within the community. The organization services four counties (or regions): Effingham, Chatham, Bryan and Liberty.

Elizabeth Waters, United Way Area Director for Effingham County, has been a part of the organization for several years. Elizabeth and the rest of the UWCE team have a true heart for what the organization stands for: providing help by bringing “people and resources together.”

The Rapid Response Fund Diligently seeking to help the community in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, the organization created the COVID Rapid Response Fund—a special fund implemented to aid those affected most by the pandemic. UWCE “seeded the fund with $80,000;” at present, the organization has attained over $550,000 to assist their four counties. What is more, 100% of funding goes back into the community. Thus far, $318,000 has been dispersed, providing aid to almost 800 individuals.

The fund was initially created for individuals in serious need of rent and mortgage assistance—those who experienced such misfortunes as job hours being cut, lay-offs or even company shut-downs due to the pandemic. UWCE is also using the COVID Fund to provide emergency aid to any of their 53 funded agencies which have been hit hard, many compelled to cancel events and fundraisers.

“We saw the immediate need to help. When we first started vetting clients for assistance, we were primarily focused on helping with rent or mortgage needs to prevent homelessness,” Elizabeth said.

UWCE understands the nearly insurmountable adversity associated with homelessness and seeks to help residents avoid its hardships as much as possible.

“Our goal is to help prevent homelessness for those most at risk, so they are healthier, safe and more likely to be able to step back into employment and thrive again when this crisis passes,” she added.

UWCE expanded their realm of assistance to include utilities, medical expenses and childcare; most assistance needed has been for rent/mortgage, utilities and food.

The organization recognizes that each region has unique needs and is committed to staying up to date with consistently changing statistics in order to fairly distribute funds. For this, UWCE uses a system called Asset Limited Income Constrained & Employed (ALICE) which reveals the percentage of individuals in each region who live “paycheck to paycheck”—those who can be negatively impacted by the smallest of financial changes. Effingham’s ALICE population is 25%.

Further, Elizabeth is proud of the selfless efforts of the Effingham team, many of whom have quickly adapted to necessary changes. A lot of staff members have been cross-trained to help with the UWCE Crisis Hotline, 211, which allows potential clients to confidentially call in for assistance. The hotline experienced drastic increases in call volume during the peak of the pandemic.

A Collaborative Effort UWCE is privileged to have the help and support of some of their partner agencies, including those specializing in aid for homelessness and rental assistance. There has been a great “pooling of resources.” The Effingham Service Center is thankful for their collaborative partnerships with organizations such as the Effingham Emergency Management Agency (EEMA), a helpful and reliable resource.

“Together, we have implemented weekly community conference calls to inform local nonprofits, businesses, churches, and others of the ever-changing needs and available resources. We have not been able to do it alone; it’s a collaborative effort,” Elizabeth noted.

During these trying times, UWCE has prided itself in helping as many residents as possible who are in need of assistance.

“It is definitely very heart-warming to be able to make a phone call to someone and let them know: ‘we’re able to cover your rent for a month or two, so that’s one thing you don’t have to worry about,’” Elizabeth said.

One local resident knows that very well—Sonya Smesta. Sonya is immensely thankful to UWCE. She was employed in Savannah for several years. Sonya lost her job after the venue shut down due to the pandemic. She was not yet receiving unemployment funds, and her rent was nearly due. If that is not enough, her car had recently broken down. The hardworking single mom found herself in a tremendously unfamiliar and difficult set of circumstances. Sonya felt a bit apprehensive to reach out for help; however, she understood the direness of her situation, so she contacted UWCE regarding rental assistance via the 211 Hotline.

“Reaching out to someone for financial help is not exactly easy; I have a lot of pride. Everything was done with kindness and compassion. They treated me with such integrity. I was blown away. They were abundantly helpful and moved quickly to help me beyond what I could have ever hoped for. I found relief, and a lot of the burden was lifted quite quickly,” Sonya stated.

Elizabeth and the UWCE team love to hear such meaningful stories. “That is the purpose of our organization. We’re thankful to be able to live out that purpose everyday, especially now in this time of need,” she commented.

UWCE insists on being proactive, so the team continues to plan for their annual campaign which is in the fall. Also, though several events had to be canceled, UWCE is planning for some virtual activities in the near future. It is all about doing what is needed to help people in the best ways possible.

Those in need of assistance may visit: or call: (912) 826-5300. Additionally, donations are welcome to provide essential help to the community. Individuals or businesses who would like to give may do so online or by calling (912) 826-5897.