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Heart of Illinois United Way stays focused on 'building blocks' as it celebrates 100th anniversary

Jennifer Zammuto
Heart of Illinois United Way president Jennifer Zammuto.

One of central Illinois core nonprofits, Heart of Illinois United Way (HOIUW), celebrated its 100th anniversary this fall.

The world looked very different in 1921. But HOIUW’s president Jennifer Zammuto said the organization's mission hasn’t really changed since then.

“The whole mission since the very beginning was to reduce the number of ‘asks’ to the community, so it's interesting that it’s still that today,” she said.

The nonprofit serves seven counties, including Peoria, Tazewell, Woodford, Marshall, Putnam and Stark. It also has a Homeless Continuum of Care branch that serves Fulton County as well.

While HOIUW tends to many different needs within these communities, it primarily focuses on education, financial stability, and health.

“We believe those are the building blocks ... focusing on educational needs, financial stability which means you can get and keep a really good job that pays a family sustaining wage, and looking at health ... if you don’t have good food or a great place to live, your health is impacted,” said Zammuto.

The organization's efforts are seen in the community through initiatives like HOWIE, or Hygiene On Wheels Independence Empowered. This is one of the first winterized mobile showering, laundry, and bathroom units in central Illinois.

“We were really glad to take some of our COVID dollars we received to launch this unit,” said Zammuto.

The organization's efforts and initiatives have had a substantial impact on reducing homeless populations as well.

“Since 2009, we have reduced our homeless population by 49% ... I think it's because of the processes and the systems and the best practices that we use across the board to help ensure we're getting people prioritized for housing, that there’s good housing available, and that we keep them in that housing with case management and other supports,” said Zammuto.

Another main initiative HOIUW offers is called S3, or Supporting Student Success, a social emotional health program.

“We go into schools and we’ll support classrooms with grants…we started this years ago and we’re certainly seeing the needs for mental health and emotional health growing,” she said.

While the nonprofit has seen many of their efforts come to fruition, it comes at a cost, and takes a village to pull off. Raising enough funds to meet the needs of these communities is a consistent challenge the organization has had over the years. However, Zammuto says community support and dedicated, lifelong volunteers help ease the struggle.

“In the beginning we had great volunteers that would go door to door asking for support. In the 50s it transitioned over more to corporate campaigns … We have a great combination now of lots of businesses. We’ve got about 300 businesses in the area that do campaigns with their employees.”

Zammuto stressed that there are also many things people in the central Illinois area can do in order to support the nonprofit. Volunteer opportunities both through the HOIUW and its partner organizations are available at hoiunitedway.org. Grant evaluators are another position people in the community can take on to help.

But Zammuto hopes that within the next 100 years, their services won’t be needed.

“We can be flexible and adaptable to change as the needs of our community do, and I hope that we can continue to do that and eventually we can put ourselves out of business because we don't need this kind of support anymore,” she said.

Jody Holtz is WCBU's assistant program and development director, All Things Considered host, as well as the producer of WCBU’s arts and culture podcast Out and About.