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‘Cardboard Stories’: United Way project shares stories of homeless

Mark Williams, left, Kendra Parke, center, and Nicole Bower, right, all of the American Rescue Workers write cards to be handed out by the Lycoming County United Way for “World Kindness Day,” which is Nov. 13.

Words written on a simple piece of cardboard send a powerful message in the hands of homeless individuals featured in a video project, “Cardboard Stories,” which has been produced as a collaborative effort of the Lycoming County United Way and their community partners.

The video is one of the projects planned throughout the month to raise awareness about homelessness in the community.

The video was the brainchild of Angelique Labadie, executive director at Sojourner Truth Ministries, who came up with the idea after seeing it on YouTube, according to Melyssa McHale, director of community impact at the United Way.

“She said you just take cardboard and have homeless individuals, who are in facilities…and put who they are in their form onto the cardboard. Who they feel the community needs to know they are,” McHale said.

People who are living in local shelters, such as the American Rescue Workers and the YWCA were enlisted to tell their stories

“We basically said we want you to write who you are. Write I am strong, I am powerful, I am independent. We said you can write as much or as little as you want,” said Ron Frick, president at LCUW.

“It’s a powerful statement. What we said was people think one thing about homeless folks and they really don’t know. They don’t know how you got here,” he added.

In the video, homeless individuals tell the whole story of how they got to Williamsport and how they ended up in a shelter.

One thing Frick wants people to take away from watching the video is that the homeless are people. “That’s as simple as it gets,” he said.

Frick cited the rise in unemployment during the pandemic and factories closing as financial crises that could lead to someone being unable to afford a place to live.

“If I’m a two-wage earner family and I lost both jobs, I could, without support from the community be homeless,” he said.

“I think we all have preconceptions based on what we see in major cities. The average homeless person in Williamsport isn’t necessarily always even in a shelter,” he said.

He added that although the people in “Cardboard Stories” are in local shelters, that is not indicative of the entire homeless population in this area.

“We hope that people ask questions and really start to dig in and start to figure out what can I do to help folks who are less fortunate than I am,” he shared.

Frick said that helping to produce the video fits in with the mission of the United Way.

“We’re the organization that looks for the issues, looks for the problem looks for the challenges and then tries to figure out what resources do we have in the community that can solve those problems. We fund programs in the community that are solving issues around health, education and financial stability,” he said.

He added that they also extend their scope to include basic needs, such as food insecurity and homelessness and then provide safety net services to program partners in the community that are working directly with the problems. The help LCUW offers is not always monetary, such as their involvement in “Cardboard Stories.”

He said that the organization looks for “how can we use donors and sponsors that the United Way has connections with and help to support those community partners who are on the ground delivering the service.”

The LCUW had initially planned to kick off their annual campaign with a Lived United Music concert again this year, but the pandemic changed all that. Over the last six months, the United Way has had to cancel major events due to COVID-19.

“We decided to wait and officially kick off the campaign. Not a lot of people are doing events, so there’s no big hoopla that we’re going to kick it off with this year,” he said.

“The goal is still the same. Our attempt is to raise $1.6 million because that’s the most we’ve ever raised and we’re going to continue to set that as a goal until we hit it,” he added.

The pandemic has also created greater needs in the community, according to Frick.

“If you talk to any of our partners, they will tell you that domestic violence cases are up. Homeless cases are up. There are no available beds in most of our shelters. It’s not going away,” he explained.

Although there will not be a big event to kick it off, the campaign has already started and contributions have already started coming in from residential and business mailings.

“We’re reaching out to workplace campaigns the same way we’ve always done, but it’s virtual this year,” he said.

“You’re not going to see school assemblies. You’re not going to see a lot of visual kinds of things because it’s all being done with emails and ZOOM calls,” he added.

The “Cardboard Stories” video will be available for viewing Friday and can be accessed by visiting the United Way’s YouTube channel or at their website.

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