Celebrate Community Event Puts a Face to Poverty in Pierce County

Celebrate Community: Walk in My Shoes

Dr. Brenda Combs Shares Triumphant Story over Addiction and Homelessness

TACOMA, WA—Despite a large crowd of 350+ guests, the McGavick Center at Clover Park Technical College grew quiet early on the morning of April 17. Lone voices shared stories to bring the Walk in My Shoes theme to life.


“After getting a new job making above minimum wage, I found out I lost my child care subsidies and I can’t afford child care. I need to work, but I also need to make sure my kids have a safe place to go after school...Walk in My Shoes.”


“A fire tore through my apartment at Christmas and I lost everything but the clothes on my back. I’m alone with no family in Fife or Pierce County for that matter. I am hardly sleeping at night as I only have a two week voucher to stay at a hotel. It’s too much....Walk in My Shoes.”


These very real life stories are regular occurrence for United Way’s partner agencies and its South Sound 2-1-1 call center. There were also messages filled with hope thanks to seemingly small, yet life changing acts that individuals and families shared.


I had no confidence and felt stuck in a minimum wage job. I found out about the Center for Strong Families. I got help with my resume, improved my credit score and I went to night school for technical certification.  Today, I’m working at a job I love. I’m not rich… but this program changed my life.


United Way of Pierce County’s Celebrate Community event shifted gears with Bill Berry, Rates, Planning & Analysis Manager for Tacoma Power and board vice chair for United Way of Pierce County. In addition to acknowledging event sponsors The Boeing Company, Union Bank and The Tacoma News Tribune, he announced that matching gifts combined with suggested event donations raised nearly $20,000.


“We decided to ratchet up the fundraising bar this year so my fellow board member Nicole Sherman from Columbia Bank and our board chair Linda Nguyen, from WorkForce Central issued a challenge. The proceeds go to support programs and services like South Sound 2-1-, our Center for Strong Families and Hunger-Free Pierce County,” noted Berry. “We planted our flag in the ground last year with our communitywide goal of lifting 15,000 households out of poverty by 2028. That means we will need to raise considerable funds to expand our initiatives in Pierce County.”


United Way of Pierce County, President and CEO, Dona Ponepinto provided an update on the organization’s progress in fighting poverty.


“In Pierce County alone, nearly 100,000 households struggle to make ends meet and one in three families are homeless or housing insecure. To frame this in a way that’s more visual, that would be like filling both the Tacoma Dome for Katie Perry and Century Link Stadium when the Seahawks are winning, to capacity,” Ponepinto declared to guests. 


“Too many families are not earning enough to meet basic needs. Yet many of our families are working in multiple jobs. The reasons include lack of access to workforce and training programs in addition to access to reliable transportation, affordable housing and daycare. By bringing together key community leaders to tackle the issues together, we can begin to move the needle and close the income gap.”


While Ponepinto delivered the hard facts around poverty, she shared good news well worth celebrating, including:  

  • More than 79,000 people were connected via South Sound 2-1- 1 to resources and services in the region to stabilize individuals and families.
  • More than 700 individuals are finding financial stability through a myriad of integrated programs and services at five Center for Strong Families locations.
  • Thanks to nearly 40 members of the Hunger-Free Pierce County Collaborative have teamed up to provide free meals and access to nutritious food to thousands of children and families throughout Pierce County.


Former Mayor Marilyn Strickland, who is now the CEO of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, also serves as United Way’s Campaign Chair, celebrated community achievements. She acknowledged that employees from more than 350 companies and hundreds of individuals and families provide financial support to United Way each year. Strickland then announced the recipients of the 2018 Neighborhood Grants and LIVE UNITED award winners.


“The neighborhood grants program will provide financial and technical support to resident or community-led groups that help children and families in their neighborhoods. Five LIVE UNITED Awards went to individuals, who set the pace for community leadership, without expecting any reward for their effort,” noted Strickland.


Dr. Brenda Combs, sang as she took the stage. Combs, a gifted performer shared her harrowing story:


“Just a little over fifteen years ago,  I was a homeless crack addict, a petty criminal, a gaunt and hopeless wreck who had been shot, beaten and raped during the endless years when I lived under a bridge in the worst part of Phoenix.  The day I hit rock bottom, I woke up under a bridge and someone had taken my shoes. Imagine that. The very shoes on my feet were gone. How does it get much worse than that?! And if you haven’t been to Phoenix lately, you might not know that the asphalt can get to be 170 degrees. The day I woke up on the streets and someone had stolen the shoes off my feet, was the day I knew I had to change my life.


Combs started the long, hard journey with a goal of re-entering society as a productive individual. She went into rehab and worked hard to overcome her addictions, got a job and eventually went to school where she received her teaching degree, a master’s degree in special education and a doctorate in organizational leadership. This was a hard won battle that took years to achieve her goal, but her story resonated with the crowd who throughout the event considered that one missed-step or one challenge could set anyone on a downward spiral.


Combs praised United Way for its work in fighting to eliminate poverty. “It takes the whole community to get behind the work because poverty is everyone’s problem. The answer is in this room filled with so many people who have the power to change conditions and the desire to help others.”


Neighborhood Grant Winners:

  • 98404 Little Free Library Community: Little Free Libraries
  • Dometop Neighborhood Alliance: Kids Club Health & Environment
  • Salishan Association: Salishan Reads
  • Spanaway Lions Club: See, Hear! Eyeglasses & Hearing
  • Kiwanis Club of South Pierce County: Kiwanis Care for Care Closet

LIVE UNITED Award Recipients:

  • Kael Steven Johnson
  • Bill Mullins
  • Tim Owens
  • Dan Rosales
  • Alexis and Stephanie Tisby


About United Way: United Way of Pierce County has a bold goal to lift 15,000 families out of poverty and into financial stability by 2028. We will achieve this by mobilizing local businesses, community organizations, governmental agencies and individuals, to make a long-term measurable difference in our community. Together, we are creating a stronger community. To learn more or to join our fight against poverty in Pierce County, visit www.uwpc.org.


Media Contact: Katherine Ransom, Vice President, Marketing & Communications

Telephone: 253.284.2549 E-mail: katheriner@uwpc.org