United Way Works to Assess Eastern Maine’s Greatest Needs

By Sarah Craighead 



Which comes first—poverty or drug addiction? Drug addiction or homelessness? When you’re spending money to improve Washington County’s well being, where does a dollar go the farthest?  And how do you measure success?

  These were some of the ideas considered by attendees in a discussion sponsored by the United Way of Eastern Maine (UWEM) on Oct. 17 at the Calais Motor Inn. 

Every five years, UWEM assesses the needs of the five counties it serves, including Washington and Hancock counties, the better to inform how it directs its funding. This year, the assessment will also be used to set 10-year goals in an initiative called Opportunity 2028. 

“The [Opportunity 2028] goals that we’re going to launch in February, they will be more aspirational goals,” said  Daniel Hinman, Vice President of Community Impact for UWEM, who explained that aspirational goals are goals that might be out of reach, but which inspire communities to stretch farther. “We want to know what’s going on in Washington County already, where are the gaps in services, and what do people want their community to be in 10 years?”

The work of United Way in Washington County is often done behind the scenes of other nonprofits. “We are funding more in Washington County than we have before,” said Hinman. “Our largest grant is to Washington County Dental Outreach at over $40,000 a year for 2018 and 2019.” The dental outreach program provides two days of low-cost dental work in Machias each spring. UWEM also provides some funding to the Community Caring Collaborative, a group which works to nurture collaboration between Downeast nonprofits in service of children and families.

Before starting the needs assessment process this year, UWEM compiled data from 20 other recent needs assessments and narrowed the field of Maine’s hot issues down to three areas: basic needs, early childhood development and substance use disorder.

More than twenty attendees to the community forum were asked to rank subcategories in each key area. For instance, what basic needs does Washington County need more help with? Shelter, food, safety, transportation or poverty? Is health care a basic need? 

Group discussion focused on the pivotal role transportation plays Downeast. “Transportation is an umbrella that covers the whole list,” said one participant. Another pointed out that a lack of transportation is often misunderstood as a motivation issue — what looks like unwillingness to work or go to appointments may come down to something as simple as an expired registration, and no money to pay for it.

Richard Bronson, town manager of Baileyville, said that transportation infrastructure also affects the health of the Downeast economy. “Seventy five percent of all jobs in Maine develop within 25 miles of a limited access highway,” said Bronson. “There is no place in Washington County that is within 25 miles of a limited access highway.”

Silas Walsh, a graduate student with the Eastern Maine Center on Aging, facilitated the discussion. He said that he was surprised to see that food was not highlighted as a key issue Downeast, because it had ranked first in the previous three forums he had facilitated. 

The group agreed that food is something Washington County does well, with a robust network of food pantries.

Brandy Dubay lives in Calais, and said she attended to hear the community’s ideas for raising awareness around drug addiction, particularly for reducing the stigma around addiction, which can make it difficult for recovering addicts to reenter society.

Walsh asked the group how we would know we had been successful in the struggle against substance use disorder in 10 years? Suggestions for measurables included a 75 percent reduction in opiate deaths, the total absence of opiates, no more stigma for addicts, and  preventative addiction education offered from infancy to seniors. 

Hinman said that the results of the five community forums will be compiled into a document meant for internal use, but which would guide UWEM’s next two-year grant cycle. 

Charley Martin-Berry, director of the Community Caring Collaborative, attended the forum. “It’s unique when a funder comes all the way to Washington County to conduct something like that,” she said. “I think more and more we are recognizing that no single institution is going to solve those hard issues by themselves, so we have to work together.”