Coming together to strengthen Human Services in Westmoreland County

By Alyssa Cholodofsky, Westmoreland Region Director, United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania

How do you solve a problem if you don’t know all of the contributing factors? When you’re not sure what resources are available, how do you figure out who can help? Can you convince people to join your cause when you cannot define the need?

These were the questions United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania wrestled with in Westmoreland County as we worked to carry out our core mission of improving lives by identifying problems and bringing partners together to create long-lasting change.

For decades, United Way has been a key partner and funder of human services in Westmoreland County. Understanding that resources are limited and problems are plentiful, our Local Operating Board and staff want to have a deep, lasting impact in the community. We asked ourselves how we could “move the needle” to make our local community a better place for people who are struggling.

Through conversations with human services providers in Westmoreland County, we learned that their concerns kept coming back to the lack of concrete data about the types of services available in the community, what community needs were not being met and why.

To realize our mission of strengthening services in the county, we needed to understand the current system and have a comprehensive assessment of needs before we could recommend solutions. We needed a human services study.

The idea of conducting a study was shared with the Community Foundation of Westmoreland County (CFWC) and the Westmoreland County Commissioners. In January 2020, our three organizations decided to come together to make it happen.

The project started in spring 2020 when we hired The Hill Group to examine the current range of human services. At that time, we had no idea how our human service organizations and public agencies would be tested during a pandemic. As we now know, so many residents were impacted by increased unemployment, food and housing insecurity, educational uncertainty and behavioral health needs. A strong human services system has never been more important and will continue to be as we move beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

After assessing the current state of services in our community, The Hill Group examined research and best practices in similar counties, conducted a survey of human services leaders and engaged community stakeholders to develop recommendations to optimize the human services ecosystem.

A primary recommendation from the study is to hire a Westmoreland County Human Services Director. The director will be responsible for integrating human services within the county structure to improve efficiency and effectiveness, and unifying the direction of human services organizations across the county. The county has already adopted this key recommendation and has just received foundation support to hire a director this summer. We are off to a great start in bringing the goals of the study to quick action!

Findings also revealed that Westmoreland County is home to a large and diverse group of human service providers (such as the food bank and homeless and domestic violence shelters) that are eager to collaborate to improve services and meet increasing needs. Through continued collaboration with Westmoreland County and CFWC, United Way will help steer the coordination of integrated human services planning, enable cross-system collaboration and expand access to services for all citizens. These improvements will further assist human services providers to meet the growing needs of individuals and families living in the county.

Now that we have the answers to our initial questions, we are better equipped to energize our community partners, individuals, corporations and organizations to come together and build a thriving community where anyone who is in need has a place to turn to for help.