Any possibly cynical person meeting Kathleen Momme for the first time is bound to be suspicious and ask himself: “Can this person really be so sincere, upbeat and hopeful?”
The answer is: yes.
For 20 years now, Kathleen Momme has served as executive director of the United Way of the Lower Eastern Shore, and her love for helping people is overwhelmingly evident.
The group is considered one of the best United Ways in the nation, raising nearly $2 million each year for 60 community programs in Wicomico, Worcester, Somerset and Dorchester counties.
Momme gained national attention in 2001, when she led United Way to become the recipient of the largest Perdue-Kresge Challenge award, $1 million, to establish the “United Way Forever” endowment that has since grown to more than $2.2 million.
Momme’s leadership has led the local United Way to be the largest non-governmental funding source for local non-profits on Maryland’s Lower Eastern Shore.
She first came to Salisbury in 1983 as director of Big Brothers/Big Sisters. After a brief move to the Philadelphia area, she returned in 1989 as director of the American Red Cross Lower Shore Chapter, where she served for five years.
A University of Maryland College Park and a 2012 Leadership Maryland graduate, The Daily Record in Baltimore named her one of Maryland’s 2013 Top 100 Women.
Q. How did you get into the community impact business and raising funds to make a difference in communities?
A. Crazy but true, I learned at the age of 12 the reality of sharing your heart and lifting someone else up was the most incredible feeling in the world.
I was a junior high school student who would take a “D” on a book report instead of standing up in front of class with wobbly knees and shaking hands to present, and yet my public speaking insecurity took an “AP” leap forward when I was blessed with the opportunity to bring a smile to those in need.
This opportunity originated when I witnessed Bethesda Florist’s marketing efforts with an Easter Bunny giving out daffodils during Holy Week.
The light bulb went on for me to be the Easter Bunny for the local Bethesda Naval Hospital. From there on up it was an amazing journey of learning how much people truly want to help others, starting with a special neighbor, Peggy Rutley … God bless her soul … who on Easter Tuesday hemmed the last available — a Men’s XL — Easter Bunny Costume to fit my 4-foot-frame along with the People’s Drug Store manager, who when I shared with him my intentions on being the Easter Bunny he immediately gave me two grocery carts to fill at no charge for gifts to give for the children in the pediatric ward.
And this was the beginning of a 10-year volunteer project every Easter Sunday from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.
I served as the Volunteer Easter Bunny for Bethesda Naval, Suburban and Sibley hospitals, along with St. Anne’s Orphanage for all ages and all wards. I learned early how people genuinely want to make a difference and they will if they see your sincerity.
I realized that my career would have to match the gift I was provided for sharing my heart and lifting others up.
Q. What has been your career path and what are some of the professional highlights along the way?
A. Well in my mind, I still feel like I am 35 years old, yet in reality I started my career 31 years ago in 1983 with what was a fairly new nonprofit in Wicomico County called Big Brothers/Big Sisters.
Thanks to the over-the-top inspiration of the first local director of this agency, Mr. Steve Minnick along with my first Board President, Joyce Shannahan, I was determined to help make the Big Brothers/Big Sisters organization be the best it could be for single parent family children.
From there I moved — only because my soon-to-be-husband worked for a for profit company — to the American Red Cross in Philadelphia as a health services coordinator and advanced to a corporate health services specialist.
Thankfully, the Eastern Shore called us back where we wanted to raise our family and I served as the Local Director of the American Red Cross, and — 20 years ago, on March 7th, 1994 — was hired to lead the local United Way of the Lower Eastern Shore.
As for professional highlights, there are many, and I consider them blessings more than highlights. First and foremost is knowing my efforts to increase accountability, impact and funding for 56 local programs has increased dramatically.
I was thrilled to be selected as a member of the 2012 Class of Leadership Maryland and honored in 2013 to be chosen by The Daily Record as one of the Top 100 Women in Maryland.
Q. What are your favorite things about living in this community?
A. As a native of Bethesda — and my husband from Collegeville, Pa., we are certainly not “from here,” yet are conscientiously “come heres.”
There are so many reasons to absolutely love living on our Eastern Shore.
This is an incredible region to raise children. There is a heartwarming sense of community, with a kajillion options to get involved.
We love the beach and there are cultural opportunities very close or within a two-hour drive.
This is a warm and welcoming community at all levels.
Q. What are some of your favorite stories of helping people through the years?
A. Every person who has been helped through our local United Way is my favorite — just like your children, you love them all.
And with what seems to be a million success stories over my 20 years with United Way, it is impossible to prioritize so I share just one to give you a quick glimpse of one of 70,000 lives who have been touched by our United Way each year.
One person I think of often is Mr. Ed Vogel, age 93. He was a Master Plumber and one who installed the initial plumbing at The Holly Center.
His wife — his best friend in the world — died when he was 88. His daughter lived in another state — he hadn’t seen her since his wife died, and he had a son in Arizona who was only able to visit once a year.
Thanks to United Way funding for Meals on Wheels, Ed started receiving Meals on Wheels when his wife died, which made it possible for him to continue to live in his home independently and not go to a nursing home.
Over the years Ed became a voracious supporter of United Way, due to his appreciation of the Meals on Wheels program which ensured his independence when he was so vulnerable.
During his talks for United Way, Ed was best remembered for his vocal support of his favorite Meal on Wheels: spaghetti and meatballs.
As he would gruffly, yet poignantly share: “You can go to any restaurant in Salisbury and order spaghetti and meatballs and you will get a plate of spaghetti and TWO meatballs … BUT with Meals on Wheels you will receive a plate of spaghetti and FIVE meatballs that are not the size of ping pong balls!”
Ed Vogel died on July 4, 2000, with United Way staff at his bedside at a United Way-supported hospice program. He had no family able to be with him.
To know we were able to help this wonderful man live independently and feel cared about was a gift for everyone at United Way.
Q. You are now kicking off your 2014 Campaign. What are your goals?
A. This is certainly a simple question for most, yet as our United Way is in the midst of implementing the most aggressive and out-of-the-box strategic plan ever, our goals are not business as usual.
Historically, United Way has equated annual goals to fundraising goals needed to best meet the needs of local nonprofit programs. Now it is different.
Yes, we raised over $1.6 million last year for local programs, and we are committed to far surpassing that monetary goal this year. Goals are now set with how many lives will be impacted with measurable results and how.
Just like well-run businesses today, we are developing our own Key Performance Indicators. This is much more difficult to measure, yet United Way of the Lower Eastern Shore is determined to provide all donors with this level of increased accountability and stewardship. Truly a great way to kick off our “70th Community Campaign!”
Q. It must be a lot of pressure to tell the community stories, raise the money and then get it the right groups?
A. Yes, yes and yes!
The great news is everyone on the United Way Staff and Board of Directors loves pressure … and when it’s combined with knowing our efforts will have a major impact on someone’s life, it is like a Nonprofit Pressure Cooker on Steroids.
Q. We had an item in the History Column last week that, in 1975, the local “United Fund” had set a fundraising goal of $200,000. That’s about $885,000 in 2014 money. Have the needs grown locally or your organization just that much more effective now?
A. First, hats off to you for your due diligence in looking at charitable giving and goals over the years on a local level. The answer is again yes and yes.
Yes, the human service needs on our Shore have grown significantly since 1975, as well as awareness and willingness to call for help.
Additionally, the local Wicomico County Community Fund expanded to the United Way of the Lower Eastern Shore in 1985 and again in 2001 to add on Dorchester County.
Q. Is it rewarding to go out and talk to groups and encourage giving? Is it ever overwhelming?
A. It’s all about education. Of our seven-member staff, there are four of us who provide over 300 presentations between September and December each year.
To say it is rewarding is an understatement by far.
MasterCard has nothing over United Way Membership Rewards!
Directly seeing the benefits of mentoring, providing food for someone who is hungry or health care for an “underinsured” neighbor’s struggling to survive is about as good as it gets.
When you look at the enormity of our local needs from financial stability for seniors and parents working two jobs and still barely survive, to the educational achievement gaps, to the need for better health education and access — yes it can be overwhelming.
On the other hand, it is absolutely exhilarating to see how our funded programs are making a difference one senior at a time, one child at a time and one family at a time.
Q. You always carry a group of very solid folds as your Board members. How do you manage to get such good people?
A. We have an incredible 70-year history of consistently strong community leadership, dating back to 1944 with names like George Chandler, E. Stanton Adkins, Dave Rogers and Sam Seidel.
These leaders and the many who have followed have built a strong foundation of trust, visible results and accountability.
Q. Celebrating 70 years of service to the community is a big deal. How do you see the local United Way has changed over the years to keep up with local needs?
A. Truly the key to our local success is that we have been constantly changing to be most effective and efficient.
We have evolved from an organization that was focused on fundraising to now an organization who is focused on creating opportunities for all in the areas of education, financial stability and health.
United Way is the one group that brings the whole community together government, nonprofits, businesses, schools, employees, retirees to make a lasting difference.
Beyond our geographical growth on the Eastern Shore, we have also expanded by providing a number of programs directly such as the Imagination Library which annually provides 10,000 books to children from birth to 5, our Get Connected Program which offers the entire community the chance to promote their volunteer opportunities and events, The Community Connection program, Student United Way programs at Salisbury University, and now also at Pocomoke High School — and much more.
Q. What is the difference between the United Way of the Lower Eastern Shore and United Way Worldwide?
A. Our local United Way is one of 1,400 independent United Ways in the United States and among 1,600 worldwide. Each of us is an independent and locally governed nonprofit organization with all funding and programs staying on the local level.
Many see the name United Way and think we are one single organization and all funds are streamlined to one headquarters — and that is not so.
Our strength is that we are all able to look at local needs yet as a system also follow the highest level of accountability and business practices.
Locally, we are the largest funder of local nonprofit programs outside of government providing over $1,000,000 annually for 56 local programs, serving four counties and are blessed with over 10,000 donors, 28 Board members and over 300 volunteers.
United Way Worldwide as a system is the largest charity in the world raising $5.273 billion dollars annually with 29,808 Board members, 9,644,000 donors and last year provided 11,215,003 volunteer hours.
Q. What can people in the community do to help you and the United Way?
A. We have a number of volunteer opportunities from committees focused on events and special projects to needs with office help, volunteer readers for our educational programs and getting donations for our Annual Holiday Ball auctions.
When it comes to the campaign, the No. 1 reason people don’t give to us is that they were never asked. Although we have over 200 local organizations and businesses who offer their employees the chance to give through payroll deduction, we have many we still haven’t asked.
We would welcome the opportunity to give all employees the chance to give even a $1 per week and to get involved with volunteer projects.
We would welcome those calls at our office 410-742-5143 or visit our website at www.unitedway4us.org.
Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org