HIGHLAND — The United Ways in Lake and Porter counties are taking a big step to better serve the residents of Northwest Indiana. The two groups are merging, officials announced Sunday night.

“This is kind of a leveling up of our organizations,” United Way of Porter County Board Chair Ron Donahue said.

He expects the transition to be completed by the end of the year.

Jeff Strack, president and CEO of Strack & Van Til, is chairman-elect of the United Way of Northwest Indiana.

“Our staffs are commingling,” United Way of Porter County President and CEO Kim Olesker said.

“I think it’s a natural and a great accomplishment,” she said. “We’re not bumping into each other and stepping on toes,” she said.

David Nicole, interim leader at Lake Area United Way, said rolling out the new organization at the start of the annual fundraising campaign is tricky but needed to be done.

“This is a merger of two amazing organizations,” he said. “This is a no-brainer.”

“When you look at the two organizations, it is the merging of phenomenal synergies,” Nicole said.

Both organizations are financially healthy and programmatically healthy, he said.

Nicole and Olesker and excited about the opportunity to cross-pollinate programs across both areas. Friday’s Day of Caring was done in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties.

United Way of LaPorte County isn’t part of the merger, although its Porter County counterpart has handled backshop finances for LaPorte for about two years, Olesker said.

Lisa Daugherty, former head of Lake Area United Way and now president and CEO of the Center of Workforce Innovations, said the timing was good for the merger with her departure from LAUW.

Research on the organization size and revenue of United Way organizations in order to thrive puts the newly merged organization right in that category, she said.

The merger boosts both efficiency and capacity to serve others, she said.

‘That one region outlook’

The boards of directors of the Lake County and Porter County organizations met jointly Wednesday to finalize the merger agreement. Afterward, their leaders told The Times Editorial Board that the move will help break down the arbitrary division the county line imposes, facilitating the expansion of the strengths of the existing organizations to the full population of the two-county area.

“We have the ability to provide services to families throughout all of Northwest Indiana now, unlike any other organization that’s currently operating in our Region can,” Strack said. “And really that’s to help families thrive, and to help improve their current situation.”

The idea of a merger is several years old, but work on it began in earnest in February.

“Both organizations bring different things to the table, and we look to expand on that,” Strack said. “Putting both of these organizations together, we can do greater together than either one could individually.”

Lake Area United Way has, since 2018, focused its efforts on aiding ALICE households — an acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. Essentially, these are households that earn more than the federal poverty level but less than enough to cover the basic cost of living for the county. The LAUW contributes to a variety of service organizations to support families with assistance ranging from child care and education to health care, financial stability and other basic needs.

One of its initiatives, the Level Up program, helps struggling, working families gain access to job training, financial education, assistance with child care and other assistance overcoming obstacles preventing them from moving into better paying jobs and becoming more financially secure. The first graduates of that program were honored at Sunday’s event.

The United Way of Porter County, which recently brought Starke County into its fold, contributed to 54 safety net programs in its 2019-2020 year, with eight of those serving all of Northwest Indiana, according to its annual report. Its efforts enhance access to health care programs, include early childhood and other education initiatives, and help provide financial stability and tax assistance as well as other basic needs. It also sponsors AmeriCorps and Volunteer Income Tax Assistance programs.

Together, United Way of Northwest Indiana will serve Lake, Porter, Jasper, Newton and Starke counties, Olesker said.

“We have really amazing work that’s happening in both counties that could serve a wider region,” Olesker said.

The merger will be finalized in coming weeks, Strack said, with a target closing date of Oct. 1.

“I’m really excited about what the future holds,” he said, “not just for United Way, but more importantly for Northwest Indiana ... blurring the county lines, bringing together that one region outlook and really helping make Northwest Indiana a better place to live.”

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