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Building a safety net – Identify a key focus

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By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Mark Pierman has knocked on a lot of doors since succeeding Jim Johnson in June as president and CEO of United Family Services.

Now, he wants to make it easier for families and children to open doors.

To do that, he aims to boost the image of the 91-year-old umbrella group, and to work more closely with other family services organizations.

His goal is to create an organization that makes it easy for people to get the services they need, and that strengthens the community — and in turn families — by helping to connect people with one another.

“United Family Services wants to be recognized as the leading family-serving agency in the community,” says Pierman, who previously served for seven years as executive director of the Family Service Association in Dayton, Ohio.

Pierman sees two big challenges for United Family Services: creating a single strong identity for an umbrella group that houses a broad range of programs with their own strong identities, and helping to build the community support systems that can reinforce the group’s work with individuals and families.

“Strong families contribute to strong communities,” he says, “but strong communities contribute to strong families.”

United Family Services is an amalgam of eight programs — such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Shelter for Battered Women, and Consumer Credit Counseling & Housing Services — that have merged over the decades.

The organization, which has 12 offices in Charlotte, Davidson, Monroe and Concord – and soon will open one in Huntersville – served nearly 23,000 people in the fiscal year ended June 30.

The number of clients has been growing at about 5 percent a year, and the offices in Cabarrus and Union counties are expected to face a big increase in demand for services.

To better position itself, United Family Services first is taking stock. Working with a consultant, Pierman expects by April to prepare a blueprint for the organization’s future.

The group also has teamed up with eight other agencies to build a new uptown Children and Family Services Center.

With the help of Charlotte fundraising consulting firm Vandever Batten Inc., the groups plan to raise roughly $6 million in a capital campaign that could begin next year.

In the meantime, United Family Services will move out of offices it has occupied for 30 years in the United Way of Central Carolinas building uptown, and into temporary quarters on Sharon Amity Road.

Pierman says the nine agencies that will be housed in the new center will be looking for ways to work more closely with one another and to better serve clients.

“I don’t think we’ve scratched the possibilities about how to make this a real community resource for families,” he says.

A big focus of United Family Services will be working to strengthen neighborhoods by hooking people up with one another.

In the Southside, Wilmore and Brookhill communities, for example, counselors from the agency in recent years have knocked on doors, talked about the agency’s work and tried to get to know residents and find out about their needs.

They found, for example, that parents worried about cars speeding through the neighborhood, and that residents felt isolated from one another. As a result, residents created an ongoing group to talk about community improvements, including speed bumps and a playground, and built a community garden.

“We’re helping to facilitate a process by which they are creating their own successes,” Pierman says. “What we’re doing is building relationships between us and the residents, and in turn assisting them in building relationships among themselves.”

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