Our History

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History of United Way

United Way of the Kearney Area has a rich history dating back to the 1960s. In 1964 five community leaders joined forces to combine fundraising efforts in Kearney into one campaign and then distribute the funds to area groups. Some of these leaders included: CEO of Rockwell, Ron Cope, and Carl Spelts. They put together a board and called themselves the "Kearney United Fund."

Community Chest

Before that there was a movement called "Community Chest." These men felt they could raise more money by unifying the community's charitable giving. They had a secretary that worked about 6 hours a week. They would ask community leaders to lead a campaign each year.

The first year, they raised $44,000 for six agencies: including Salvation Army, Red Cross, Little League, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. As they realized that many people were working in Kearney and yet receiving services in their home communities they started to expand the fundraising efforts to include outlying counties to include Buffalo, Custer, Kearney, Franklin, Harlan and Phelps. 

Pat Munro was the first Executive Director in 1978. Her involvement with United Way began much earlier. She and her husband, Bob, were driving in the car one day and heard a commercial on the radio asking for someone to help with one of the divisions of the campaign. Pat's children were small and in school. She thought, "I have a little extra time on my hands, I could probably do that." She co-chaired the campaign with Bernie Boyle from West Co.

United Way of the Kearney Area

The Kearney United Fund joined United Way of America in the early 80's. The board eventually grew to include one representative from each agency, and they were voting members. Later their voting was revoked, but they were included in meetings and planning sessions.

In the late 1980's the name changed to United Way of the Kearney Area (UWKA) to include the outlying counties we were serving.

In 2003, UWKA joined a national effort and launched 2-1-1 which replaced First Call for Help. This enabled us to increase services and expand our territory.

History of leadership

Pat Munroe continued her leadership at United Way from 1978 into the early 2000s.

In 2001, Marsha Wilkerson was hired as Assistant Executive Director to prepare for Pat Munro’s retirement. Marsha returned to Kearney from Omaha where she had been employed with Data Transmission Network. Marsha had been an intern and communications specialist with the Kearney United Way in the late 80’s. She left United Way in 2006 to assume the position of corporate communications director for Good Samaritan Hospital.  Marsha is now employed at BD Construction Inc.

In April of 2006, Cathleen Torpey-Abels was hired as the Executive Director. Cathleen had worked previously with the United Way in Santa Barbara County, California. Abels began a process of aligning the organization with nationally identified impact areas. In December of 2006 she left the organization to become the director of Northridge Retirement Community.

Lisa Parish | phoneathon | history

In March of 2007, Lisa Reese Parish was hired as Executive Director. Lisa was most recently the Fund Development/ Communications Director for Girl Scouts Goldenrod Council in Kearney. Lisa worked with four different Girl Scout Councils over an 18 year period.  In January 2016, Lisa went to the Kearney Public Schools Foundation to become their Executive Director.

duck race | Kent Barney | history

In 2016, Eileen Dakan was hired as Executive Director.  She came to United Way after previously serving as the Planning Director at Community Action Partnership of Mid-NE and teaching Introductory Sociology for several years as Adjunct Faculty for Central Community College and the University of NE-Kearney.

Nikki Erickson became the Executive Director in 2018.  Nikki has been co-owner and office manager of Team Concepts since 2010.  She is a University of Nebraska at Kearney business administration graduate and has experience in the insurance industry, in real estate investment, customer relations and business management.  She and her husband, Josh, have volunteered with United Way and represented Team Concepts as the 2016-2017 campaign sponsors.  

In 2023 Savannah Lyon became the Executive Director. Savannah is a Kearney native and graduate of both Kearney High School and UNK. Savannah brought with her over a decade of nonprofit leadership experience. Previously she worked with Compass, one of United Way's partner agencies, Kearney Public Schools, and a small organization serving an impoverished community in Kenya. Savannah holds a bachelor's in ministry from Central Christian College in Moberly, MO and an MBA from the University of Nebraska at Kearney. 

Savannah Lyon | 2023 | history

For History of United Way Worldwide, click here.