Editorial: United Way leader Jim Ayres’ legacy of stability, collaboration

  • United Way of Hampshire County Executive Director Jim Ayres will leave that job after six years on June 9. He will join the United Way of Pioneer Valley, based in Springfield, as its president and CEO. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Thursday, June 01, 2017

The United Way of Hampshire County’s departing executive director, Jim Ayres, leaves a legacy of stability and collaboration among agencies assisting our less fortunate neighbors.

Ayres is not venturing far. His last day at the local agency is June 9, and on June 12 he will begin his new job as president and CEO of United Way of Pioneer Valley, based in Springfield, succeeding Dora Robinson, who retired. After six years of directing the Hampshire County agency, Ayres is embracing the chance to lead a larger United Way in a more impoverished area.

“Part of what I’m excited to do is to take that success we’ve experienced here in Hampshire County and see how I can use that to address needs and make the biggest difference we can in Hampden County,” he says.

The United Way of Hampshire County is expected to announce soon an interim director while it searches for a permanent successor to Ayres. During its current campaign which ends this summer, the United Way has raised $1.25 million toward its $1.3 million goal. The money benefits between 26,000 and 28,000 people in Hampshire County each year — or about one of every six residents.

Ayres has worked with the board to convert the United Way’s decisions about grants for member agencies from an annual to a three-year process. That allows for a more thorough review of each funding request in the three broad areas served by the United Way: children, youth and their families; economic security; and health and safety. It also gives the 35 member agencies the security of knowing they will receive United Way money for three years, rather than having to reapply annually.

Ayres also has been instrumental in bringing together agencies to collaborate on specific issues, such as meeting the needs of the increasing number of refugees in the community, particularly giving them long-term support.

And the United Way during the past year introduced a program matching member agencies with employers whose workers can volunteer on company time. “We find that it’s a really rewarding experience for the individuals, it’s a nice team-building for the company and it provides great support for the organization where they’re volunteering,” Ayres says.

The United Way this week announced its latest grants totaling $810,000 over the next three years to 14 agencies that provide services bolstering economic security. The largest grants were given to the Amherst and Northampton survival centers, ServiceNet Interfaith Shelter in Northampton, Casa Latina, the Center for Human Development supportive housing program, and Community Legal Aid.

“Whether addressing the needs of our neighbors in crisis or those working to stay on their feet, we believe that all Hampshire County residents should have resources to turn to when facing economic challenges,” says Ayres. “These include supports related to food, shelter, job skills, permanent housing, language education, legal assistance and financial literacy.”

In addition, two newer agencies – It Takes a Village in the Hilltowns and Quaboag Hills Community Coalition in Ware — will receive $15,000 and $7,500, respectively, in “capacity-building” grants. “These promising new programs aren’t yet at a level where we’re able to offer full grants as they are still developing,” Ayres says. “Yet, they represent great ideas and are engaging key populations.”

It Takes a Village provides free neighbor-to-neighbor support for rural families with newborns and young children in the Hilltowns of western Massachusetts.

Ayres also has taken care to put a face on the work done by United Way. Its latest annual report includes a profile of Rick Stegeman, who received help in recent years from the Amherst Survival Center and Craig’s Doors shelter. He gives back by volunteering at the survival center and the Wednesday community breakfast at the Unitarian and Universalist Society in Amherst. “They all help in different ways, and people rely on their services,” Stegeman says of United Way agencies. “That’s why I do volunteer work, because I have gratitude.”

Those who give to and benefit from United Way of Hampshire County have gratitude for the passion and commitment that Ayres has contributed during the past six years, leaving the agency well-positioned for continued good work as he takes his skills south.