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Emergency funds from the United Way: A game changer for Resident Services

February 9, 2024

Shortly after Amanda Melo Nieves began her role as Resident Services Coordinator in September 2023, she spent a day pouring her energy into solving a problem for a couple at the Lumber Yard in Northampton. In the pouring rain.

“I was stressed and a half that day, frazzled and a half! We got word that a household didn’t have any food, and they really needed help. It was a Friday, about to be the weekend. But it became a really good day for me,” said Melo Nieves, who was able to secure some gift cards to a grocery store for the couple. “I just remember seeing the relief on her face. Words of gratitude are nice, but I care more about solving the problem itself. Our team is trying to do our best, one tenant at a time.”

Helping people navigate such challenges is part of the role of Way Finders’ Resident Services team. Their mission is to help tenants stay stably housed at Way Finders’ properties across western Massachusetts. Many of whom are living on low and fixed incomes, which means that unexpected emergencies or expenses can quickly lead to tough choices. Such as between paying for food or rent. Or buying essential items (medicine, eyeglasses, clothing for children) or paying utilities. When some needs go unmet, they may snowball and affect someone’s physical and mental health or jeopardize their housing.

Melo Nieves and her colleagues are well versed in offering words of support plus referrals to community resources, such as food pantries. But since July 2023, staff at properties located in Hampshire County—including in the towns of Amherst, Easthampton, and Northampton—have had another way to help people facing urgent, emergent needs. All thanks to the United Way of the Franklin & Hampshire Region (UWFH).

“The emergency funds for Resident Services that we received as a grant from the United Way have really been a game changer, I can’t stress that enough,” said Director of Resident Services Shalyn Kempema. “When we come across a tenant that we know is struggling, we’ve never had something like this before, where we can give tangible assistance in a way that best benefits tenants and supports their housing stability.”

As Kempema described the process—staff fill out a short internal form to describe the crisis, which she then reviews—and shared details on how residents have been aided, what becomes clear is just how flexible the UWFH’s emergency funds are. And how they fill a need not often addressed by other sources of funding.

“Yes, it’s flexible with a capital ‘F’!” said Kempema. “We’ve given money toward clothing for kids going back to school, and essential household goods is a big one. If someone is low on funds for the month, we’ve helped with groceries. We’ve assisted tenants clear some of their rent balance. What else? Organizational tools for someone at risk of not passing inspection on their unit, who may be facing eviction. A moving truck for someone who needed to relocate immediately to another unit and had no resources to move on his own.” 

When Kempema learned that Toni Bourdon-Parizo, a resident of the Lumber Yard and co-president of the tenant association, was funding resident gatherings by dipping into her own budget and facing some hardship as a result, she had an idea.

“I was like, ‘Why don’t we apply for this fund? That way you can replenish your own household, and moving forward we may have to find another solution for these activities.’ So that’s what ended up doing, she received support for her groceries,” said Kempema.

“I just truly care about people, about getting the people in the building more on the same page and coming to things, to be a part of this community,” said Bourdon-Parizo, who has organized meals and movie nights, and hopes to start card and game nights. “When Shalyn mentioned the United Way funds, I was really excited.”

“It’s so essential to have someone like Toni who is leading the community in a really nice way toward the light,” said Melo Nieves. “I’m very proud of who Toni is in the community, as a tenant and as a voice for the tenants. She’s a pillar at the Lumber Yard. She does great work, and all for free, that Way Finders benefits from. So if we could help her a little bit to cover the cost of the community outreach work she has been doing, that’s exactly whose hands it should be in.” 

So far, Kempema noted, the Resident Services team has assisted 20 households with the funds. The quick turnaround time involved helps ensure people can address challenges in nearly real time—another aspect of the funds that staff commend.

“If we can find a way to help solve someone’s crisis with the funds, we’ll make it happen,” said Melo Nieves. “If I could write my own letter of gratitude to the United Way, I’d be more than happy to. Because I recognize how much they have helped some of our tenants, and they’re going to help many more people. This is the best way to do not only community outreach, but community healing.”

Want to join the United Way in supporting our work? Donate to Way Finders.