By Dan Ladue | Photos by Jessica McCafferty
John Bernardi is a man on a mission. His passion is to help others live a life of worth and dignity. Social worker, human services coordinator, non-profit organizer — the President and CEO of United Way of the Adirondack Region, Inc. is a busy man. He enthusiastically goes about his work finding ways to help people in need. He knows what he is doing is good for humankind, and good for his soul.
What is now the United Way of the Adirondack Region, Inc. first emerged in 1949 as the Community Chest, but the idea wasn’t new. In 1887, a group of Denver, Colorado community leaders got together to brainstorm about a way to consolidate resources and created an opportunity to support a variety of local initiatives under one umbrella as opposed to numerous organizations often out of sync with each other. That year, the Charity Organization Project collected $21,700, in today’s dollars more than $700,000, to be used to aid 22 Jewish and Christian agencies.
It took no time for the idea of a community-based campaign to raise needed funds for a wide variety of charitable organizations to unfold across the United States. By 1913, the first Community Chest was founded. Volunteers went door-to-door soliciting contributions. The idea spread across the country until, by the end of World War II, the idea had expanded to almost 500 communities in the United States. By 1949, the term United Fund emerged, and fund raising was done through the work place. Under the motto, “Give Once for All,” it was a way to include, in a single campaign, local charities, Community Chests and national organizations such as the American Cancer Society and the Red Cross.
Three quarters of a century later, a further amalgam of other aid agencies led to the easy-to-remember moniker of United Way. Today, United Way is an international network of over 1,800 local, non-profit fundraising affiliates. It is the second largest non-profit charity in the United States with an annual revenue of almost $5.2 billion, 100% of which is donor contributed.
United Way created a mechanism to consolidate fund raising efforts and grant writing. The primary source of donations comes directly through payroll deductions which redirect a portion of one’s salary to support the local community. It acts, as social work scholar Eleanor Brilliant suggested, as a sort of “secular tithe.”
Local schools, many businesses and almost anyone with a payroll department, solicit funds from employees. Almost 75% of the money raised in our regional United Way comes in this way. Private donors, fund raising events and retirement organizations also contribute a stable amount of money, all of which is used to support the many programs United Way backs. These donations represent almost $750,000.00. Another $250,000.00 comes by way of grants. The total budget for United Way of the Adirondack Region, Inc. is close to one million dollars. Outside of basic overhead, all of that money is funneled back into partner agencies, then into local communities.
All United Way affiliates are regionally operated, have their own board of directors, make their own decisions, and operate as an independent organization that is non-profit, apolitical, non-sectarian, and transparent. Its sole purpose is to raise money, then return those funds to those in greatest need.
The United Way of the Adirondack Region, Inc. (www.unitedwayadk.org) is the umbrella organization for 35 partner agencies that form a network of help to meet the needs of almost half of the population of New York State’s Clinton, Essex and Franklin counties—more than 80,000 people. Locally, United Way connects with partner and government agencies to determine the greatest needs in this region, and to strategize how to address those needs.
Our United Way is broad based. It supports, to name only a few, early childhood development (Champlain Children’s Learning Center), mental health and wellness (National Alliance of Mental Health), basic needs such as disaster relief (American Red Cross), youth enrichment (Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, and the YMCA), and services for the elderly (Senior Citizen Council of Clinton County). It also provides access to medical care, food, transportation, and housing.
John Bernardi’s first passion is social work, and social work is a huge part of United Way’s mission. It’s all about meeting the most critical needs and connecting people to those resources.
Of all the initiatives that United Way fosters, ALICE is by far the most extensive and most important. ALICE is an acronym that stands for asset limited, income constrained and employed. Clinton, Essex and Franklin Counties are three of the least economically advantaged in the state of New York. Far too many households in local communities earn just enough to be considered above the Federal Poverty Level, but do not earn enough to afford basic necessities. In these counties, approximately four out of every 10 people fall below the ALICE threshold.
ALICE households, especially vulnerable to national economic disruptions, increased substantially through the recession years from 2007–2010. From 2019 to 2021, both the number of ALICE households, and the number of family units in poverty, increased to 44% of all those living in the tri-county area. A composite profile is a family of four that needs a minimum of $68,000 a year to maintain the most minimum lifestyle, a standard of living that hovers dangerously close to the poverty level. Often too “rich” to receive state or federal assistance, these families struggle with financial hardships, despite two adults working two or even three jobs.
One of the missions of United Way is to provide hand-ups, not hand-outs. In time of great need, the organization’s web page can be of great help to a person who may have no place to turn.
When food insecurity becomes tantamount, when mental illness becomes unmanageable or when your grandmother’s health is seriously compromised but no one has the money to pay for medical attention—call 2-1-1, text 898211 or email 211adk.org. You will be linked to community, social or government services that can provide food, shelter, rent assistance, child care options, and other types of community assistance. Trained referral specialists are multi-lingual and available to help individuals find the help they need.
A query can also be done with the United Way of the Adirondack region’s informative webpage. A range of varied services appear. Ten windows further link the caller to services as diverse as senior/elderly, legal, and disability resources, transportation, and basic needs.
Within each box are more specific agencies. Need legal assistance? Click on Legal services. A subset of agencies appears. Seeking counsel for a family legal issue? Link to “Family Support Legal Services,” and the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York comes into sight.
Thanks to technology, all of this can be done from home, thus avoiding the possible embarrassment of asking for help in person at the United Way Office.
United Way encourages and supports a variety of ways for local citizens to act as volunteers within their community. Each United Way maintains a databank of names and the skills each person is willing to offer when needs arise. Volunteers are matched by their specific skills. A retired teacher may volunteer at the Champlain Children’s Learning Center. Someone who speaks another language can work with Plattsburgh Cares, a humanitarian organization that aids immigrants.
United Way maintains a regional volunteer center. The tri-county region is serviced when volunteers are matched with project needs across the region and with information on various opportunities.
One of the most successful campaigns that match the right volunteer with the right job is United Way’s Annual Day of Caring. Each spring of the year, the United Way of the Adirondack Region, Inc. sponsors a day long effort that targets a specific, large group endeavor. In April, 2023, 20 people with home construction skills helped repurpose an old Girl Scout camp that will be used this summer for the YMCA.
For those who did not have the skills for that specific job, folks were challenged to help in other ways. A few suggestions: donate funds to a local charity; donate food to the local food shelves; help an elderly or disabled person with yard work, minor repair or spring cleaning.
Currently, there is urgent need for foster care in our area. In the past five years, the number of children needing intervention has risen by more than 90%. Through the Department of Social Services, United Way helps to match foster parents with children. The good that comes from the act of fostering can ripple well through the decades of their lives.
If there is one thing that United Way of the Adirondack Region, Inc. wants the public to know is that it focuses on addressing the needs of a huge swath of the North Country, assesses what can be done, then follows through on its plan.
John Bernardi said it best. “Every human being deserves a life of dignity, free from the enormity of problems that many of us escape.” That’s a mighty good goal!
As a young man John Bernardi’s career goal was to be a forest ranger. He graduated from Paul Smith’s College in 1986 with a degree in Ecology and Environmental Science and was preparing to take the required civil service exams, when he had a change of heart.
“I realized I wanted to be in the helping professions,” Bernardi explained. “That led me to non-profits and I never looked back.” A first job at the Camelot Boys Home (now Mountain Lake Academy) in Lake Placid set him on a path that has given him great satisfaction.
He earned a degree in Community & Human Services from Empire State College and, over the years, worked in a variety of non-profit agencies in the North Country. He was the CEO of the Adirondack Community Action Program in Essex County when the position of president and CEO of the United Way of Clinton County (now the United Way of the Adirondacks) opened. That’s when Bernardi found his dream job, doing just what he loves – program coordination, counseling, helping so many people in so many ways.
Bernardi is a dedicated family man. He met his wife Karen at Paul Smith’s and they are the proud parents of three adult sons. “I take great pride in family life,” he offered. The list of activities that Bernardi enjoys is long and outdoor focused. He is a fanatic skier, a fly fisherman, a canoeist, and a former Adirondack Guide. “I can’t get enough of the outdoors. I love being in the wilderness,” he offered. And, in addition, he loves music.
John Bernardi is a North Country treasure – fierce in his dedication to the people who need an advocate, generous of spirit and a friend to all.
United Way of the Adirondack Region
Tom Miller Road
Plattsburgh, NY 12901