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Our History

In 1964 five community leaders got together and decided to combine various fundraising efforts in Kearney into one big 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."

Before that there was a movement called "Community Chest" and that provided a similar service but was very hap-hazard and unorganized. 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 and they started with 6 agencies: some were Salvation Army, Red Cross, Little League, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and 1 other. 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 of which we now have 6 counties.

Pat Munro became the first Executive Director in 1978. Her involvement with United Way began much earlier. She and 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 and she thought "I have a little extra time on my hands, I could probably do that." She co-chaired the campaign that year with Bernie Boyle from West Co.

The Kearney United Fund joined United Way of America in the early 80's and First Call for Help was organized in the mid 80s. The Board eventually grew to include one representative from each agency and they were voting members. It seemed a bit self-serving for the agencies to have voting status so their voting was revoked but they were still included in meetings and planning sessions and are to this day.

In the late 80's the name changed to United Way of the Kearney Area 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.

In 2001, the board hired Marsha Wilkerson to serve 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 the United Way in February of 2006 to assume the position of corporate communications director for Good Samaritan Hospital.

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.

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.

Eileen Dakan was hired as Executive Director in March 2016.  Eileen is a native of Kearney and a graduate of Kearney Catholic High School, Doane College and the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.  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.

For History of United Way Worldwide, click here.