United Way Volunteering 101

Ashley Nicoson (right) and her engagement team plan and lead volunteer events across the city.

Chicagoans are deeply committed to the city we call “home.” We are people who care about our neighbors and want to see everybody thrive. There’s no shortage of desire to give back or opportunities to get involved, but it can be difficult to know where to start.

At United Way, we help to connect volunteers to the greatest needs in our community. Together, we’re making a difference in everyday ways, like cleaning up schools, assisting our neighbors with tax prep, mentoring the next generation and more!

In honor of National Volunteer Month, our Corporate Liaison Ashley Nicoson sat down with our Digital Content Specialist, Carley Mossbrook, to discuss why United Way of Metro Chicago is the perfect one-stop shop for volunteers who want to get involved.

Carley Mossbrook: Ashley, a lot of people may be interested in volunteering but feel like they aren’t qualified or don’t have the right skills if the project is drastically different from their day-to-day work. Are there any qualities or experiences needed to be a volunteer?

Volunteers at ITW’s 5th Annual Day of Action landscaped and painted fences at a local preschool, led outdoor sports for summer campers and packed care kits for new moms.

Ashley Nicoson: Anyone and everyone should volunteer! While we certainly see a need for skill-based volunteering, anyone can plug into local needs with a bit of research into their own interests and what is happening at agencies in their community. Volunteering is a great way to build a new hobby or continue building an established interest.

CM: Exactly. And it can be really fun! But sometimes it’s hard to gauge whether you’re making an impact through volunteer service. Can you explain why volunteers are such a vital part of United Way of Metro Chicago’s work?

AN: As we examine what community engagement means, volunteers are a crucial part in addressing needs and driving change that an agency or neighbor has. United Way is able to connect these needs with volunteers that share their time, serving as a link between resources and opportunities.

CM: Sounds like United Way is a volunteer matchmaker. I know we do a lot of that connection for our corporate partners, in particular. Why do you think corporate philanthropy and having the opportunity to volunteer through their companies is important to employees?

AN: We find that our partners value the chance to invest to in community by rolling up their sleeves and addressing a genuine need. This allows them to not only work alongside their coworkers and teammates but also pair their professional work with their personal values.

AT&T employees joined forces to make improvements at Primo Center for Women & Children in January.

CM: But employees aren’t the only ones who have something to gain from volunteerism, right? How do employers benefit from providing volunteer opportunities to their team?

AN: Volunteering provides an immense opportunity to both strengthen teams and understand United Way’s impact firsthand. A team volunteer project breathes life into philanthropic goals a company has and provides a different perspective on what it means to work together towards building stronger communities.

CM: Makes sense. I’ve seen volunteers create great memories together. That’s team-building at its finest. Now that we have the lowdown on volunteerism, where can community members and employees find opportunities to volunteer with United Way of Metro Chicago?

AN: Anyone who is interested in joining our fight to build stronger neighborhoods can visit our volunteer Opportunity Calendar to get involved! 


The Changemakers: Corporate Volunteers Strengthen Community Ties

In a large warehouse just south of McKinley Park, Anthony Lighthall and his colleagues at National Futures Association (NFA) prepared for a busy day of community service.  

Outside of his human resources role at NFA, Anthony leads the company’s workplace campaign. He encourages his fellow employees to support United Way and facilitates service projects that advance our mission to build stronger neighborhoods.

“I’m happy to be partnering with United Way and I’m very excited to spearhead the campaign and be a leader this year,” Anthony said. “United Way really helps out in communities. It’s very rewarding to be a part of.”

Hosting a Day of Service is one of the many ways our corporate partners, like Anthony and NFA, can get out into the community and support their neighbors. Some projects assist United Way partners with an ongoing need, such as organizing baby goods and snacks into kits for new moms or kids in after-school programs. Others address a specific need, like cleaning up a playground or painting a school.

For NFA’s Day of Service in late March, Anthony led a project with Catholic Charities. For the entire day, he and his team sorted and packed bags of food and household goods to be delivered to low-income seniors living in neighborhoods with limited access to fresh foods and higher rates of hunger.

With these goods, these neighbors can rest assured that they know where their next meal is coming from. Thanks to the support of volunteers, they won’t have to stress about traveling to a food pantry or going hungry for the week.

Anthony’s strong desire to give back isn’t the only quality that made him a great fit to lead this project and NFA’s fundraising campaign. Along with his upbeat personality, Anthony is inspired to bring neighbors together. He recognizes how strong bonds between community members can spur long-term change – the essence of our mission here at United Way.

“We all have busy lives,” he said. “We go to work and come home. But getting to know the people next door or in your neighborhood is very important. We need to build that trust and help each other out.”  

* * *

Looking for opportunities for your company to invest in change? Check out our Opportunity Calendar! When we all participate, we can help ensure that our neighbors have the tools they need to reach their full potential.


International Women’s Day 2019

Year-round, women in our community and the United Way network empower others and inspire change. Some create pathways to leadership in their companies, while others organize their neighbors to build stronger neighborhoods. No matter their contribution, all do so in the service of their community. Today, on International Women’s Day, we celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women and call for advancing gender parity around the world. Join us in celebrating these seven women and all who fight for a more fair, equal future!

Click the portraits below to learn about six amazing women in our community!

Toni Peterson
Tina Sayadi
Marilyn Jackson
Beatriz Merlos
Cheryl Francis
Itedal Shalabi and Nareman Taha

The Advocates: Cultivating a Culture of Corporate Philanthropy 

In his lifetime, Charles Matthews’ career has taken him and his family around the United States and beyond. Though his title and coordinates have changed, his commitment to serving as a philanthropic leader in the workplace hasn’t.

Serving as president and chief executive officer of Peoples Energy, Charles oversees the daily operations, strategy, growth and administrative activities of Peoples Gas and North Shore Gas. Together, the two utilities distribute natural gas to more than 1 million residents in Chicago and the northern suburbs.

Since he took the helm in 2015, Charles has served with a sense of personal and corporate responsibility at the forefront of his mind. A member of United Way’s Tocqueville Society, a global membership organization of community leaders and philanthropists, Charles’ embodies Alexis de Tocqueville’s belief that in order to create a vibrant civil society, people must join forces for a mutual purpose.

In his case, Charles utilizes his leadership position to cultivate a culture of corporate philanthropy that advances solutions to Chicago residents’ most pressing problems.

“I have been committed to United Way my entire career,” Charles said. “I’ve been fortunate that every step of the way, the corporations I’ve worked for have supported and matched my commitment to United Way. It’s part of my corporate DNA.”

A team effort

A native of Macon, Georgia, Charles has had a wildly successful career in the energy and utility industry. Earning degrees from Talladega College and Atlanta University, Charles ventured into the industry in the early 1980s.

Since, he’s worked and resided in New Orleans, Jamaica and Wisconsin, where he served on the board of United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County. Four years ago, he uprooted and settled down in the Windy City to run Peoples Gas and North Shore Gas.

Among other internal enhancements, Charles quickly urged his new team at Peoples Gas and North Shore Gas to amplify their culture of giving, especially to United Way.

“If you look at the breadth of the organization – the programs in education, income and health – those are the things I personally support to improve our neighborhoods,” Charles said. “It’s no coincidence that Peoples Energy also supports those programs to improve the quality of life in the communities we serve.”

“United Way also makes giving an efficient process for us,” he added. “We don’t have to go out and find different partner agencies that can deliver the best results. We can rely on United Way’s depth of experience and history of supporting the best of the best of those organizations.”

To demonstrate his dedication to corporate philanthropy, he set the stakes high.  “I knew that we needed to make a bigger commitment to the community,” Charles said of his charge to employees. “The commitment was to move into the Top 25 contributors to United Way.”

Under his leadership, Peoples Gas reached, and even surpassed, that milestone, nearly doubling its corporate contribution to United Way of Metro Chicago between 2015 and 2018.

Beyond the boardroom

In his few years in Chicago, a place where he loves to see Broadway plays and explore new restaurants, Charles has made a commitment to the city that extends beyond his office. He’s dedicated to helping shape the Windy City into a place where all can live safe, healthy lives.

That’s evident in his support of United Way and his service as a board member of the Chicago Urban League, Navy Pier, Ounce of Prevention Fund and Economic Club of Chicago.

And though there is still much work to be done, Charles is encouraged by the strides United Way of Metro Chicago and our partner agencies are making across the region, especially in our Little Village Neighborhood Network, where Peoples Gas has greatly invested both money and new company infrastructure.

“There are too many neighborhoods where every day challenges in education, health and income still exist,” Charles said. “United Way is still the one that stands at the top at addressing those challenges.”


Are you interested in deepening your commitment to United Way of Metro Chicago this new year? When you join the Tocqueville Society, you demonstrate your leadership and dedication to building stronger neighborhoods for a stronger Chicago region, all while accessing one-of-a-kind membership benefits. Learn more!


Dedicated Mentors Encourage Student Success

The academic and career trajectory of young adults growing up in the Chicago region often hinges on the support systems they can rely on. Some are born into strong, supportive networks of family and friends, while others must cultivate their own, creating bonds that enhance their life journey.

So was the case for Jessica, a student from North Lawndale.

High school was a troubling time for Jessica, as she often had conflict with her peers and struggled academically. Those challenges left her feeling like she wasn’t cut out for high school and that graduation, inevitably, wasn’t in the cards. That’s until she was connected to the Stay In School Initiative through the youth agency Young Men’s Education Network (YMEN).

The Stay In School Initiative – a partnership between United Way of Metro Chicago, Exelon and ComEd – works with six community agencies and their partner high schools to offer a holistic range of programs and services to students and their families. The programs include tutoring, social service referrals, leadership and social engagement training, and parent involvement classes. The heart of the program is a mentoring component, in which hundreds of Exelon and ComEd employees partner with students to offer academic support and guidance, as well as to host monthly workshop series for skill-building.

Having the opportunity to meet professionals who can provide career and social guidance is invaluable for the students. The mentor-mentee relationship can inspire youth to consider their career paths at an early age and provide them with the skill set and goals needed to achieve their dreams.

For September McDonald, an SIS student and United Way of Metro Chicago summer intern, the program also enabled to her learn more about herself and her place in the world. 

“[The Stay In School program] opened my eyes to another world,” September said. “It’s making me an even more well-rounded person…someone who is also culturally, socially and politically aware of what’s going on in my surroundings.”

Closing an education gap 

When the SIS program began seven years ago, United Way, with the help of our corporate partners, aimed to address a gap in youth education and resolve chronic truancy and high dropout rates. Since, the program has had a positive impact on thousands of students, including more than 1,800 youth who participated during the 2017-18 school year.

Of the 536 students who most actively participated in SIS this past year , nearly 85 percent achieved satisfactory school attendance, and more than 88 percent of students achieved satisfactory grade performance. In addition, all of the 2018 Stay In School seniors graduated from high school.

Jessica was among them. Her participation in SIS allowed her to write a different life story than the one that was unfolding. Her SIS mentors and the staff of YMEN helped Jessica make a much-needed transition to a new high school that partners with the youth agency to offer additional life supports.

There, she was able to overcome the challenges present at her previous school. She also developed leadership skills that she quickly put to the test by assembling and leading a dance team at her new school. “Her grades dramatically improved this year from C-D level grades at Wells School to getting As and Bs here [during] senior year,” said Will Chatman, program manager of YMEN. 

Most importantly, her newfound success enabled her to graduate in June. Now, she’s headed off to City Colleges of Chicago to continue her education. “In grades, school attendance, and school leadership, Jessica was a fantastic example of the impact created with the additional support and engagement through the United Way, Exelon, ComEd and YMEN collaboration,” YMEN leaders shared.

With a new school year underway, a new cohort of students will soon follow in Jessica’s footsteps. Though their path is their own to forge, the mentorship provided through the Stay In School Initiative will equip the students with the skills and confidence needed to thrive, and that will make all the difference.

United Way Corporate Partners Give Back in Big Ways

It’s no secret that we have great partners at United Way of Metro Chicago. We’re able to join forces with some of the best, brightest and most benevolent business leaders across the region in our fight for stronger communities. While there are endless ways that our corporate partners invest in the neighborhoods we serve, we wanted to highlight a few that are making significant strides toward improving outcomes. 


BMO Harris Bank
Investing in communities and helping others is in the DNA of BMO Harris Bank, as reflected by their slogan “We’re here to help.” As a longstanding partner of United Way, BMO has gone above and beyond to contribute to thriving communities across the Chicago region. In 2013, BMO Harris Bank’s cornerstone investment was crucial to the launch of the Neighborhood Network Initiative. Since then, they have continued to support this community-based work, committing a total investment of $3 million over 8 years, which has enabled the expansion of our work within the 10 neighborhoods we serve.


Wells Fargo
Wells Fargo has been a champion of communities in need and a dedicated partner of United Way for years. In 2016, they decided to focus their efforts to strategically invest in bringing critical resources to one neighborhood. Their three-year financial commitment to the Austin Neighborhood Network has helped improve families’ access to quality early-childhood learning opportunities and job skills development and referral programs within the neighborhood. This focused approach is also reflected in their volunteerism, with Wells Fargo team members spending the majority of their volunteer hours in the Austin community.


Our partners at Target have fully “bought in” to the work of United Way. One of their greatest areas of impact has been the $100,000 back-to-school shopping sprees. This annual event provides 100 students in each of our 10 Neighborhood Networks with a $100 gift card to spend on supplies they need for the new school year. United Way works with the lead agency in each Neighborhood Network to identify the students with the greatest need, then Target organizes a shopping spree complete with healthy foods and drinks, free transportation, and a fun-filled day for the entire family. Local politicians, school leaders and agency partners all came out for last year’s shopping spree, truly making this a community-wide event.


A leading advocate of our work in education, Exelon partnered with United Way of Metro Chicago to create the Stay in School Initiative (SIS). This program selects students in 9th – 12th grade from some of the most underserved communities in our region and provides them with the tools and mentorship they need to make it to high school graduation and prepare for college or a career. A key element of the Stay in School Initiative is the Saturday mentoring workshops, which are lead by Exelon employees and help students learn basic skills such as resume writing, business basics, keys to networking and the dos and don’ts of interviewing. Since 2005, the Stay in School Initiative has served an average of 2,250 students per year.


UPS employees don’t stop at financial and time contributions – they are true hand-raisers who are quick to address immediate community needs. They have taken their role in the community a step further by connecting individuals in need of jobs to open positions within their eight regional facilities. Working directly with United Way of Metro Chicago’s Career Pathways funded agencies, UPS’s HR team has placed pre-screened candidates in open roles with a 100% success rate.


These are just a few of the ways our corporate partners are making an impact. There are countless others who are dedicated to the work of United Way and our agency partners and are instrumental in the work we do. If your organization is interested in partnering with United Way, contact Katie Jozwik at katie.jozwik@uw-mc.org. 


YLS Member Spotlight: Zach Walters

Why did you join YLS, and what is your current role? I joined YLS to become more active in my community, through volunteering and helping those in need. I felt that it was important to have a balance in my life of helping myself succeed, and helping others succeed. I work to get more people involved in YLS, and those currently involved, more active within YLS. What is your favorite experience of being involved with United Way? My favorite experience working with the United Way was partnering with the YMCA in Pilsen. The kids are in a pretty rough area, and this was a refuge where they could play soccer and other sports and have a lot of fun. It was a very rewarding experience because the kids look up to you, and you have a very real effect on them. What got you interested and involved with the United Way? My involvement with United Way started young; I just didn’t realize it at the time. My father was very judicious about how he donated his money, making sure it was spent in an efficient and principled manner.   Every year, the United Way was his choice of non-profits. Once I graduated college and began working, I wanted to contribute to the community. After a few searches, I came upon the United Way Young Leaders Society. I went to one event, loved the people, the atmosphere and here I am. What are your favorite things about YLS/UW involvement? My favorite things about the United Way and YLS are the great people you get to be around and work with on a daily basis–and the impact that you can have–merely by volunteering your time. What would you say to someone interested in joining YLS? I would say absolutely try it. It is a great way to become more involved in your community and you meet a lot of great people. And it’s a lot of fun! Zach Walters, an investment associate at RBC Wealth Management, first learned about United Way from his father. Apparently, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Walters, the vice chair of the YLS Member Development Committee, is excited about the way YLS can impact the community in Chicago. He is busy helping to shape the next YLS 101 event, a free evening on Oct. 4 to connect with young professionals and learn about United Way and YLS.

Q & A with YLS Executive Chair, Angela Wells

The new YLS Chair works in the Government Affairs and Community Investment Department for Comcast, enjoys the platform YLS gives young professionals to take a leading role in the community and is inspired by her fellow members. Oh, and her all-time favorite movie is the original Karate Kid. For the A to Z on Angela Wells, read on. What are your major goals for YLS this year? I’d love to see YLS continue to flourish. My goal is to inspire more young professionals to instill a lifelong commitment to the community. More specifically, we want to grow our membership, focus on United Way initiatives such as education, and add member value by creating new programming including leadership development and several networking and volunteer events throughout the year. Why is YLS a good group for young professionals to become involved in? YLS is a dynamic group with meaningful events that allow young professionals to take a leading role in impacting their community. What do you do for your job at Comcast? At Comcast I work in our Government Affairs and Community Investment department where I focus on local community and government affairs initiatives. Some of these include our Comcast United Way Campaign, our national day of service – Comcast Cares Day and promoting our Comcast Leaders and Achievers scholarship program. A current initiative I’m excited to promote in the community is Internet Essentials from Comcast, a new program that will give students who qualify for the federal free lunch program access to low-cost Internet and computers. It’s wonderful to be involved with the launch of this program in an effort to close the digital divide. I love the fast-paced environment of the media industry and being involved in the community through my role at Comcast. In addition to YLS, I’m also a part of the City Year Associate Board, Women in Cable Telecommunications and the Cornell Alumni Association of Chicago. How did you originally get involved with YLS? I first discovered United Way when I lived in Houston and led the Comcast United Way Employee Campaign. From there, I became active with the Young Leaders group as I was inspired by the work of United Way and I was also looking to meet like-minded young professionals. When I moved to Chicago, I wanted to become more familiar with the community and I quickly discovered YLS. My first YLS event in Chicago was a holiday celebration where I had the opportunity to meet several committee members who encouraged me to become more involved. What was your best YLS experience? The best experience has been meeting people who I now can call close friends and see regularly in YLS and outside of YLS. Without my involvement with YLS I would never have had the chance to meet so many extraordinary and dedicated young professionals. There are so many worthy nonprofits. What is it about YLS that made you decide to take on a leadership role? I learned a great deal about the work of United Way and its impact in the community through leading my company campaign. Once I understood the impact and the critical focus on Heath, Education and Income – I knew it would be an organization I would be involved with for years to come. I wanted to take on a leadership role to inspire others and to become an ambassador for United Way. In YLS, I truly believe there is a unique opportunity to network, become educated about issues facing the community and volunteer alongside like-minded professionals. Why do you continue to stay involved and how? I continue to stay involved with YLS because I truly care about the work United Way is doing and I enjoy the company of all the YLSers who share the same drive. It’s always great to meet with such inspiring and personable members in the group and there are always new people to meet! Now onto some fun questions! Best thing about Chicago The many festivals, farmers markets and amazing food. Worst thing about Chicago Traffic. When I have free time, you will find me where in Chicago? In hot yoga classes, walking around Lakeview, at various community events through my involvement with Comcast, at local sports bars rooting for Cornell and Penn State… Favorite places to eat Chicago Diner, Whole Foods and Mercadito Favorite television show Modern Family and Good Morning America Favorite movie Karate Kid (1984) Favorite musician George Strait What songs are always on your iPod? I’m a little old fashioned and do not own an iPod. I still listen mostly to the radio! I use Pandora on my home and work computers and love country music, classic rock, jazz standards – some of my favorites range from Edith Piaf, Randy Rogers Band, Jo Stafford, Julieta Venegas to Cage the Elephant. Favorite vacation spot Houston to visit family and friends Favorite quote “…And in the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter and sharing of pleasures. For in the dew of the little things the heart finds it morning and is refreshed…” from the Prophet (on friendship) by Kahlil Gibran