Oct. 14–Mary Kay Wolf knows what it’s like to lose a job.
She has been laid off. She has lived in fear of losing her home. She has struggled to support her three children and depended on the generosity of others for food.
“You lose a lot of self esteem,” Wolf said. “But, more than that, you worry.”
The 51-year-old says those experiences helped her understand the true value of friends and community. Months into her new job as executive director of the Great Rivers United Way, Wolf already has big plans to help the same community she once de-pended on to help her family.
The basement of United Way’s local offices is fully stocked with coffee mugs, signs and shirts as the group continues its annual fund-raising drive. The goal is to bring in about $2 million by mid-January.
Money from the drive will be divided between 73 local programs that support families and youth. Last year, the local branch helped about 133,000 people across its five-county service area.
Wolf joined the group in June after a five-year tenure as executive director of the local YWCA.
Wolf harnessed her marketing background and proved her passion for social work at the YWCA. She brought the YWCA into the limelight with public events and fundraising, said Brent Smith,
a La Crosse attorney and United Way board member. The YWCA’s annual budget climbed from $400,000 to about $1 million. The group added new programs, including a work-assistance program for women and a child care center formerly operated by Western Technical College.
“The Y became, to me, a much more visible group and entity during her tenure there,” Smith said.
Wolf first dreamed of doing social work as a student at Central High School, but “was discouraged by adults in my life,” she said.
Instead, Wolf worked in marketing. It was during her time at Ovation, a now-defunct advertising agency, that for-profit ad work started to feel empty, Wolf said.
After she was laid off, Wolf knew it was time for a change. She took a job as an office assistant at the Family and Children’s Center.
“I saw it as a way to get my foot into the non-profit world,” Wolf said.
Wolf worked her way up to communications manager for the Center, and left after three years for the YWCA job. She found a way to channel her marketing expertise to help local non-profits and the people who depend on their services, she said.
“Now I’m helping other people to help people,” Wolf said, laughing. “If that makes sense.”
Wolf brings a distinct vision to the role, and the leadership skills to follow through on her plans, said Steve Salerno, another United Way board member.
“She knows in a very succinct and thoughtful way how to move the organization forward,” Salerno said.
Heading the United Way is not an easy job, said Smith, who has served on the United Way board for five years. As executive director, Wolf is caught between the demands of a 25-person board and the financial needs of the vast array of community groups that depend on the United Way for funding.
That means dealing with some competition, and being able to explain why one group might need more funding than another, Smith said.
Wolf is a passionate and practical fundraiser, said Linda Lyche, who is co-chairing this year’s campaign with her husband.
“She’s very caring and very giving and very understanding,” Lyche said. “She’s very well informed of what the agencies and programs do.”
But Wolf wants the United Way to be more than a financial support for the community. Gone are the days of tracking dollars by coloring in a model thermometer, she said.
She wants to bring together local non-profits, businesses and faith-based groups to work together on common goals. She wants to strengthen the community and build new friendships.
“Live united,” isn’t just the United Way’s catch phrase, Wolf said.
“I’d like to see the United Way become strongly relevant again,” Wolf said. “A lot’s changed.”