Margo Casey speaks a lot about opportunity; she is quick to credit all kinds of people with creating it, and her career has been dedicated to the sake of it. From state government work with teens and juvenile delinquents to the board of Healing Abuse Working for Change (HAWC) to a community health center in Dorchester, Casey has served her community in a number of capacities.
Years ago, Salem-based HAWC was in need of a director. “That was an opportunity to work in and grow a nonprofit, which I hadn’t done before,” says Casey. Like many nonprofits, they were work- ing with a deficit and a tiny staff. By the time she left, eight years later, there was a staff of 35 and a $200,000 budget. And Casey had discovered her talent for getting fledgling enterprises off the ground. “What I found out,” she says, “and what has stayed with me, is that people really care, particularly on the North Shore. There’s a sense of knowing your neighbor here.” She also realized the pleasure of watching something grow.
After a stint at a larger nonprofit in Lexington and another stretch running a clinic where health care and health care finance provided “a whole other exposure,” Casey found herself at the helm of Beverly-based North Shore United Way (NSUW). Of her professional endeavors she says, “All those experiences prepared me for coming here.” And it is here she has stayed for the past nine years.
Perhaps most indicative of Casey’s ability to mobilize people is the formation of Women in Action (WIA). At three years old, it is the organization’s newest effort. The group focuses on childhood obesity and has made great strides in creating awareness around the issue. Comprised primarily of women who value good health, WIA identifies and funds programs that increase children’s access to nutritious food and physical activities. For Casey, creating opportunities for people to give and to be educated in the process is most gratifying.
The group started with four women on the board. They began hosting breakfasts and bringing in speakers. “We needed people to understand what we were doing,” notes Casey. “People came because they were interested in the topic.” Glen Urquhart School was purposefully chosen as their meeting place because a number of women had ties there. They brought in agencies like Partners Healthcare who do a lot of work around childhood obesity, including research into effective strategies for combating it. Casey discovered Playworks in Boston and invited them to speak, too. “I was trying to give exposure to agencies as well as donors about what was going on.”
Women in Action, Seeding a Cause Luncheon / Photo courtesy of North Shore United Way
Though the North Shore is home to many upper-and middle-class families, there are some real pockets of poverty. “Everyone talks about how healthy produce and physical activity are good for kids, but the reality is those things are expensive, and cheaper food fills you up,” explains Casey. “I’m convinced [parents] want their kids to eat well, but they don’t necessarily have the wherewithal.”
WIA volunteers and the steering committee spend a lot of time reviewing and vetting applications for grant monies. They are always inviting new agencies to apply. Casey describes one grant at work: The Gloucester YMCA went into the Riverdale housing development with bats and balls and set up games for kids to play, and then told them about the nearby club. “Sometimes the perception with big agencies like the Y is that they are so big, they don’t need money. But because they are big, they can do this kind of one-off that smaller organizations are not able to do.” Volunteers were there to witness the event. Casey believes seeing and hearing about this kind of thing keeps the spirit of volunteerism alive.
When Casey first landed at NSUW, there were just a few volunteers, but she has made connections with many outside agencies to help move NSUW’s mission forward. “Part of what I love doing is digging down more deeply into what it is we are doing.” Thanks to that kind of digging, the 85-year-old chapter now invests almost $1,000,000 each year in support of over 25 nonprofit organizations in Beverly, Essex, Gloucester, Hamilton, Ipswich, Manchester, Rockport, and Wenham. The funds go toward five “community impact areas” that include basic needs, child and after-school care, housing, health care, and youth substance abuse prevention. “The mission really is to enable people to be involved and to make sure all our neighbors are able to be on the same level,” explains Casey.
In an ongoing effort to recruit new volunteers, the staff recently developed and launched the Volunteer Hub—an interface on NSUW’s website that goes into great detail about the innumerable opportunities available with their partner agencies. Since time is often a roadblock when it comes to volunteering, opportunities have been designed to suit all kinds of schedules. “We factor that in,” says Casey. “We want it to be doable for people.”
Among NSUW’s efforts, Casey is particularly pleased with the Tribute Fund, which was set up to honor longtime donors who have passed away. Money is given by friends and family of the deceased and set aside for new and innovative programs. Currently, there are two programs funded with these monies: the Summer Learning Loss program for low-income kids in Gloucester, which prevents children from falling behind academically during summer breaks; and Northeast Arc in Beverly for kids on the autism spectrum, which employs iPads to help them communicate in school and at home.
As important as recognizing past donors’ support is, tapping into the millennial generation’s skill set is vital to the organization’s long-term health. “They are very smart, very bright,” says Casey, who recognizes the power of social media by pointing to the Ice Bucket Challenge’s viral success. She values the fact that young people know how to build and sustain huge networks. “It’s a mind-set, thinking in terms of social media, and the younger generations have it and love it and are addicted to it.” She thinks about how to make the North Shore chapter of a national organization go more viral. “It’s got to in order to survive.” Toward that end, and in an effort to diversify the organization’s demographics, next year they will work with Endicott College students mentoring them through the grant review process.
Casey reflects on an event that took place last spring called “Seeding a Cause.” Volunteers showed up at Glen Urquhart School’s greenhouse to sow seeds (provided by The Food Project) on behalf of Backyard Growers, who would ultimately plant the plugs in community gardens. Kids played in view outside, Chive Sustainable Event Design & Catering served lunch, and chef/owner of Espalier Frank McCullen’s farm manager gave a talk. “The light was gorgeous,” recalls Casey. “There we had the combination of volunteers working in the greenhouse, the farm manager talking, the kids being active in the back. It was made to order.” In fact, it was the very picture of NSUW’s mission. nsuw.org
Please consider contributing to the North Shore United Way this holiday season.