By Chloe Piekkola
Among the devastation of eviction notices, financial hardships, and job loss, United Way emerges as a beacon of hope, offering a helping hand to those in need and guiding them along their path until they regain stability.
Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting with Heather Novak, the Executive Director of United Way of Grand Forks, East Grand Forks & Area. She shared with me the organization's mission to empower our neighbors with opportunities to thrive. Heather emphasized that enabling our community members, children, and friends to prosper is the foundation for building a successful and resilient community.
In 1957, a group of neighbors in the Grand Forks area came together with a shared goal of making a positive impact on their community. They formed a partnership with United Way Worldwide, originally aiming to support various local organizations. However, as time went on, the objectives evolved, and in the fall of 2019, United Way's focus shifted towards creating a more significant and lasting impact on the community's members. This change was a result of collaboration among community members, school board members, and local social workers, who collectively identified crucial gaps that needed addressing. One pressing issue they discovered was the need for assistance for families, children, and individuals facing homelessness. In the 2018-2019 school year alone, 160 children experienced at least one night of homelessness.
In 2019, after recognizing the need for clothing items for families, United Way launched another program called Kidz Closet. The initiative takes in donated clothing, school supplies, household items, winter clothing, and hygiene items. Everything that is donated is pushed right back into the community for free, ensuring the support reaches those who require it. As this program continues today, it has served over 1,000 kids and families.
When COVID struck, the issues our community faces became even more urgent, with many people grappling with job loss and eviction notices. United Way took swift action, launching its short-term program, called One Fund, to provide relief for individuals and families struggling with rent and utilities. Recognizing the significant need for support, United Way introduced a permanent program called Families First. This comprehensive initiative not only helps families find temporary housing, but also assists them with various essential tasks like filling out SNAP and childcare applications, obtaining important documents such as birth certificates and social security cards, and addressing other crucial needs to help them get back on their feet.
And it doesn't end there. Families First goes the extra mile by offering continuous support and guidance for up to 12-18 months. United Way follows up with budgeting plans and works closely with the families to help them understand and manage their finances effectively, ensuring they can maintain stable housing and avoid slipping back into homelessness. According to Heather, having exceptional case management is crucial in this process. The support provided by United Way acts as a safety net, preventing families from falling back to where they started and empowering them to thrive once more.
During the 2020 school year, United Way started to fund the Backpack Program originally hosted by volunteers in East Grand Forks. The Backpack Program, is an initiative that fights against childhood hunger by providing bags of food for low-income students to feed them over the weekend. United Way started by providing 75 bags per week during the school year. When United Way fully took over the Backpack Program in 2020, they began serving 250 bags per week. As the months continued, so did their growth. They continued to add Grand Forks Head Start, and East Grand Forks Head Start, in 2021, then dispersed their efforts to a Larimore Elementary and Grand Forks SAIL Program in 2022.
Expanding further in the spring of 2021, Kidz Closet reached the Emerado and Larimore communities. Then in the fall of 2022, United Way took over the Larimore food pantry, providing an upgraded facility that accommodated space for the food pantry, Kidz Closet, and the Backpack Program. These initiatives showcase United Way’s ongoing commitment to supporting the communities in and around Grand Forks, making a positive impact in the lives of those they serve.
United Way has its sights set on several important goals to help further support the community. One objective is to transform a part of their new location into a Kidz Closet where those in need can come and “shop” for necessities they may need, free of charge. Another significant aspiration is to expand into childcare, addressing the pressing need for this service.
As a community, working together to bridge the gaps is crucial. One way United Way does this is by collaborating with companies and organizations right here in our city. Schuett Properties assists in finding affordable housing for families facing homelessness or who need immediate housing due to job loss. Additionally, United Way has partnered with Better Together ND to share the caseload, allowing more families and individuals to get the help they need. Once United Way has secured housing, Better Together ND conducts checkups and continuous budgeting assistance to ensure the ongoing well-being of the families. Furthermore, United Way has teamed up with Safe Kids, providing car seats to those who cannot afford them, and ensuring that they are properly and safely installed. These pop-up events are coordinated to offer all necessary assistance in one location, making it convenient for those in need. Equally important are the connections United Way has with Northlands Rescue Mission and CVIC. They all seek to collaborate to address different gaps and aid in support. Working together, these partnerships strive to provide for the well-being of those in need.
United Way's efforts in assisting those in immediate need are commendable, but what sets them apart is their ongoing commitment to being aware of the ever-evolving needs in our area. Their dedication to the success and safety of the people in our community is admirable. I had the opportunity to discuss this with Heather Novak, who shared her inspiration for working tirelessly for United Way. “I love the idea of working together to help close gaps. We have a really determined team who works on identifying the needs and alleviating the barriers that are out there in our community.” Heather also emphasizes that awareness is crucial. As a community, we possess the power and resources to make a significant impact, but many don’t realize the struggles others face or the programs that are available. Recognizing the challenges within our area is the first step towards lending a helping hand. United Way is here, ready and waiting to provide assistance.
Each life touched by United Way serves as a powerful reminder that we are stronger when we work together. Together, we can make a difference and create a thriving and caring community for all.
To support those in our community and beyond, or to volunteer, visit the United Way at
1013 N 5th St., Grand Forks, ND,
call (701) 775-8661,
or visit their website at
// To view the full story, check out the digital issue here
From Issue 3, 2023
PHOTOS SUBMITTED BY: United Way