Connelly: Love living ‘United’
Published 9:51 am Monday, September 19, 2016
Michele Connelly has one passion —making the community better.
“I love to help people,” she said. “That is who I am, that is what I love to do.”
And as executive director of United Way of West Central Mississippi, she has the perfect vehicle to meet the passion.
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“I can tell you — and I mean this — every day I wake up to come to work, I just thank God. I love what I do.”
Working for United Way, she said, “Is extremely fulfilling. I can go from bad to seeing the light bulb go off for an individual who wants to give back to the community and they find their niche; where they belong. That is so awesome to see somebody go ‘I can make a difference here.’ That can happen all within an hour.”
Born in Idaho Falls, Idaho, Connelly came to Vicksburg when she was 5.
“My father is from Tennessee and my mother from Mississippi, and Entergy Grand Gulf brought us to Vicksburg,” she said. “I tell everybody I was not born here, but I’ve definitely been raised here since I was 5 years old.”
A graduate of Vicksburg High School, she has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Mississippi State University and a degree from Mississippi College in counseling psychology with a certificate in guidance counseling.
“I was a guidance counselor at Vicksburg Catholic Schools for six years and a principal at St. Aloysius High School for nine years,” she said. “The reason I thoroughly enjoyed education and wanted to be a part of education was the students, the children; the young men and women.
“I wanted to be a part of their lives. As a guidance counselor, that was fulfilled on a daily basis; I was able to help them take a step toward the next step, which is a huge accomplishment for students who are graduating and trying to figure out where to go next in life.”
And while being a high school administrator provided some fulfilling opportunities for her, Connelly said the position took her away from being with the children.
“As the years went by, I began to realize I was missing out on what I truly loved, and that was to be with the students and to make a difference in the lives of others,” she said.
And that led her to apply for the director’s position at United Way, which was being vacated by the retirement of Barbara Tolliver.
“I truly believe that God opens doors when the door is supposed to be opened for you,” Connelly said. “I applied for the position and was asked to come for an interview, and the interview was quite intimidating because there were six or seven people in the room. They were ready to find a new executive director for the United Way of West Central Mississippi sooner than what I was going to be able to make the transition for.”
After the interview, she said, it seemed her opportunity to get the position had vanished, “Because I was definitely going to fulfill my requirements at Vicksburg Catholic Schools until the end of the year, but they waited for me.
“My successor here left United Way of West Central Mississippi in awesome condition and was providing me the opportunity to definitely be successful, but do it in a way that brought in my own personality and brought in some change.”
As United Way director, Connelly works with 20 different agencies supported by the organization.
“These are partner agencies,” she said. “I’m supposed to walk beside them and what they do for our community. That effort is extremely easy, in that they’re all working toward advancing the common good in the area of health, education and financial stability.
“They just love collaborating with each other and having the opportunity to work with each other, and we are kind of the hub for that. We provide opportunities and they come forward and participate.
“They thoroughly enjoy the professional development, thoroughly enjoy the collaboration, the learning, the growing, and all of the volunteers that come out. Sometimes I have a difficult time walking beside them, because they’re just doing awesome things in our community.”
There is one difficulty with her position.
“I can’t help everybody. As much as I want to help every single person in our community, there will always be someone out there that’s still in need. There’s immediate needs and there’s how can you create something in our community that will be sustained to help the larger need in the community. “That’s a hard balance, because there’s so much immediate need that requires attention and money and talent. It’s hard to figure out what to do, because you’re confronted with people who have immediate needs (and) you want to help them, but you ultimately want to create something so that person will never have that need again. And that’s a challenge to figure out that balance.”
And there is fundraising, “because you cannot make that difference unless you are able to provide the monetary support to make that difference.”
Connelly, however, sees a larger picture. Supporting United Way, she said is more than donations.
“It’s the impact we’re making on the community, and when you do that together, and you do that with the passion that the directors have with our partner agencies, and you do that with passion of the people in our community, it comes together; it happens.”
During her first year as director, Connelly said she watched the United Way programs to determine how to move forward in the future.
“I kept hearing two things that first year,” she said. “We need to create a larger stage so we can share the story with more people; that was important. The second thing I considered very important was community impact.”
The larger stage, she said, was the color run to get more people involved in United Way and learn about the partner agencies. The community impact involves showing people the impact their donations and volunteering has on the community. That includes community listening sessions, where United Way’s directors talk with the directors of the partner agencies about the challenges in the community and how they see them and how it affects the clients.
“My first exposure to United Way was my father, who said, ‘We give the church and we give to United Way.’ Then, you gave in work force campaigns because you were asked.
“Those days are beginning to be gone, because people want to know why they are giving and what it is doing. We’ve got to be able to answer those questions, and I would hope be able to do it every single year.
“And I want to do it as long as I possibly can or until they ask me to leave.”