To most, it’s a stairwell — a set of steps linking the first and second floors of a 100-year-old former elementary school building. To Aleyna Mitchell, it’s a portal through which families struggling to make ends meet find relief.
At the top of the stairs are classrooms where before- and after-school care for children up to 13 years old is offered.
On the first floor you’ll find northern Indiana’s only licensed, nationally accredited bilingual early childhood development center, which offers affordable preschool classes and care.
A couple more steps down is an alcove with double steel doors leading to the outside. Some might see it as just an exit. Mitchell envisions the nook — now outfitted with three sets of floor-to-ceiling shelves — as a future food pantry serving the Spanish-speaking community.
This is El Campito Child Development Center, located on the near westside of South Bend, and it’s one of 25 local agencies that receive program funds through the United Way of St. Joseph County (UWSJC). Notre Dame faculty and staff members who invest in the annual United Way campaign help El Campito offer parents scholarships for child care.
“First and foremost, we are a child care center, which is very important because St. Joseph County is a child care desert, meaning there are so many more children than there is child care. Some people can’t go to work because they can’t find child care,” said Mitchell, El Campito’s director of development and community outreach.
In October, as part of United Way’s Day of Caring, about a dozen staff members from the Mendoza College of Business spent an afternoon washing and then painting the walls, hand railings and balusters in the stairwell, preparing the space for what’s next: the food pantry.
“We’re taking everything out and painting it and getting it ready to be carpeted. We will eventually fix the lighting,” Mitchell said as she took a break from directing the project. “Once it’s ready, we hope to partner with the food bank to provide food to families in the area.”
Understanding United Way
This is the first time Notre Dame participated in the Day of Caring, which is how the UWSJC starts its annual campaign.
The United Way is a nonprofit dedicated to reducing poverty by taking a whole-community, or a united, approach. One agency cannot address all aspects of poverty, but the work of a couple dozen local agencies can.
Each year the UWSJC raises money at area workplaces like the University of Notre Dame. Then area nonprofits apply for United Way grants to address these focus areas: early learning, youth success, stable families and critical needs.
“The goal of the United Way is to provide people with the critical needs they have today, like food, and equip them for the future. Nobody survives without having their basic needs met. But if you can help to stabilize their lives and then put support systems in place to help them step out of the cycle of poverty — and all the trappings that come with it — lives are transformed,” — Lauren Smyth, UWSJC’s vice president of mission advancement.
The pandemic factor
The impact of the coronavirus pandemic, which came on the scene in 2020, is still being felt by many local families. Employment interruptions, debt caused or exacerbated by insecure work, and rising inflation have been devastating.
“Those in our community who had a stable income, who had the ability to earn, have remained primarily stable, but for those who were barely hanging on, it’s been devastating. And it’s a divide that just kind of widens month after month,” Smyth said.
Jim Conklin, co-founder and executive director of Cultivate Food Rescue, has seen food insecurity grow the past two years.
“The record high inflation we are all experiencing disproportionately impacts our vulnerable populations, especially children and minorities,” Conklin said.
“People have to make difficult choices … mothers may choose to skip dinner so that their kids have more to eat. Canned vegetables are chosen over their healthier but more expensive fresh options, or vegetables are not chosen at all,” he said.
The University's United Way Campaign ends on Friday, Dec. 2. Click to donate.
Your support matters
Cultivate Food Rescue is another local agency the UWSJC funds through its annual campaign. The funding helps Cultivate rescue unserved food from regional venues, like Notre Dame, and transport the food to its kitchen where volunteers package it into microwavable meals.
“Our vision statement is, ‘No Neighbor Hungry, No Food Wasted,’” Conklin said. “We’re a volunteer-run organization. We have more than 4,000 volunteers.”
During the Day of Caring, six members of the Division of Campus Safety and University Operations spent the afternoon at Cultivate bagging meals for the backpack program. The take-home meal program provides nutritious meals for the weekend to local students who face food insecurity.
Studies indicate that children who lack access to healthy food are less likely to graduate from high school and move on to successful careers, and more likely to experience developmental delays in areas such as language, motor skills and behavior.
In all, the UWSJC serves 25 agencies and a total of 45 programs because some nonprofits apply for multiple grants.
Smyth emphasizes that United Way only supports local, high-performing partner agencies, vetting each program and requiring the agencies to provide measurable outcomes. “We are so grateful for Notre Dame’s partnership and the support that faculty and staff offer. Thank you.”