A Year Of Learning
United Way Director Reflects On Beginnings With Organization
It has been a year of learning.
That is how United Way of Southern Chautauqua County director, Amy Rohler, described her first year with the agency. Rohler originally served as the executive director of Community Helping Hands of Jamestown from 2009 until late 2018, when she joined the United Way.
“The first year to 18 months at United Way has been really fantastic,” Rohler said. “Everything I have learned has been positive.”
She cited the involvement and commitment of the community members and volunteers, the work of United Way’s community partners, their funding and assessment.
“All of these things before I started at United Way I was not aware of,” Rohler said. “That year of learning was very impactful.”
Her first year at the United Way is a chapter in a career that has spanned both coasts of the United States.
Originally from Oregon, she received a bachelor’s degree in English from Seattle Pacific University in Seattle in 1997. She also received a master’s degree in religion from Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Conn., in 2001 and a master’s degree in divinity from North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago in 2004.
From 2005 to 2009 Rohler and her husband (the Rev. Adam Rohler) lived in New York City in a neighborhood on the East Side.
In 2009, the couple moved to Jamestown after Adam Rohler accepted a position as pastor of First Covenant Church on Spring Street. At the same time, Rohler excepted a position as executive director for CHH in Jamestown. September marked the 10th year the couple have lived in Jamestown.
“He interviewed at that church and around the same time there was a job opening at Community Helping Hands,” she said. “It turned out we ended up starting the (same) first week.”
During her time at Community Helping Hands, she oversaw the the growth of the organization’s services and outreach. These included a family center and relationship-based workforce development.
When asked why she decided to join the United Way, Rohler cited more work with individuals as her motivation.
“One of the reasons that I choose to come to United Way is collaboration-connecting the dots (on a community-wide basis),” Rohler said. “I’m a problem solver by nature.”
She added that while she exercised this during her time in New York City and at Community Helping Hands, she found she could do more at the United Way.
“Coming to United Way allowed me to do that and have a greater impact,” Rohler said. “Not just one organization but many organizations.”
As part of her self-described “year of learning,” she found out new things about the impact of the United Way on communities.
“I did a lot of visiting of our programs and community programs and then I had to make presentations at local businesses about them,” Rohler said. “I did some research on everything that we were funding and the kind of collective impact work we were doing.”
Rohler said having knowledge of the Empire State Poverty Reduction Initiative (ESPRI) was helpful in her first year.
ESPRI is a grant initiative, introduced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2016 as a means of provide funding to 16 impoverished cites in the state.
As part of the initiative each municipality received $1 million dollars in funding to participate in the state poverty reduction program. Jamestown was selected as one of the 16 cites. Each city maintains a task force that would help to curb the effects of poverty. As such, funding went to programs that assist individuals in securing and retaining employment, support employers and employees, education, and family and community support.
As a qualifying city, the Jamestown ESPRI consists of city, county and state representatives, local school districts and educational organizations, local businesses, workforce service organizations, economic development organizations, public safety officials and health services professionals.
The implementation of the Jamestown began in May 2018.
“It was helpful because where I come from (Community Helping Hands), we were one of the recipients of the grant,” Rohler said. “I had some familiarities with ESPRI and I think that was very helpful in my first year in terms of seeing the implementation of alot of those projects.”
As such, Rohler is proud of the progress that the United Way has achieved with ESPRI.
“I think that we’ve been able to foster a lot of important collaboration around workforce development and we’ve also been able to engage the larger community of employers, educational institutions, and not-for-profits around the areas of public policy and economic development,” Rohler said.
What stood out for Rohler was the process to make funding decisions and that they are all made by community members.
“At United Way we engage 50 to 60 volunteers and these volunteers are the one’s that review our applications for funding,” Rohler said.
She also added these include site visits to the locations that are then divided into eight different panels. From there the actual decisions of funding are made.
“We raise $1.3 million every year from the community but it is the community that makes the funding decisions,” Rohler said. “It is a community driven process and I am very proud by that fact.”
Rohler said that currently 39 programs are funded by the United Way.
When asked about the difference between working at CHH and the United Way she said that there are more platforms for attraction in her current role
“It (United Way) is a much bigger platform to attract people,” Rohler said. “I spent my time helping people in poverty (at CHH) directly. United Way is doing more systems change in the community.”
However, Rohler said her proudest moment in her first year was the outcome of the 2018 United Way campaign.
“I am very proud that we exceeded our campaign goal. That was my first campaign that I was a part of from beginning to end,” Rohler said. “We raised $1.356 million.”
When she is not working with the United Way, Rohler enjoys spending time with her family, and volunteering at Southwestern Central School and First Covenant Church.