When Terry Vodery took over as CEO of United Way of Southern Chester County last summer, she couldn’t have imagined how much she would grow to love this community and the inspiring people who live and work here.
The United Way of Southern Chester County (UWSCC) conducted an intensive nationwide search last year to find someone to succeed retiring CEO Carrie Freeman. Terry R. Vodery, most recently the Executive Director of the United Way of Cecil County, brings a wealth of experience and a servant-hearted desire to support neighbors in need and change lives.
“The United Way system offers an opportunity to impact communities on a very large scale,” Vodery says, “bringing together community leaders, organizations, individuals, churches, nonprofits, and businesses for one cause. There’s beauty in that. You get to see people at their best.”
Back to her roots at Lincoln University
An opera lover and foodie who loves trying different cuisines, Vodery grew up in Newark, Delaware, where her mother was a schoolteacher and her father worked for Chrysler. But in many ways Vodery’s story began when she enrolled at Lincoln University, where for the first time in her life she was surrounded by African American peers and professors.
“Throughout my academic life I’d been the only black kid in my class,” she says. “I think that led to a kind of loneliness that’s hard to articulate.” At Lincoln, by contrast, “I felt comfortable and relaxed, and that was conducive to my growth as a human being. When I left, I was strengthened in such a way that I was able to fit in any room and was clear about who I am. Because of my experiences there, I can bring my full self to the table.” And, she adds with a smile, “It was fun.”
The Kennett area feels like home to Vodery—in part because her alma mater is down the road and in part because she appreciates the beauty and history of the region. Even more, though, she feels a deep affinity for the people and the organizations USSCC supports. The depth of this connection has surprised her. “I really love this region and have a heart for the people,” she says. When Freeman took her on a tour last summer of the agencies UWSCC supports, Vodery was impressed by what these accomplished professionals are doing to serve others and inspired by the stories of the people seeking these services. “I thought, the whole world needs to know about them!” she says.
“Giving others the opportunity to do good”
Vodery’s first job out of college was at the PBS headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. “As the administrative assistant to the head of fundraising programming, I wrote scripts for those PBS fundraising slots we’re all familiar with,” she says with a smile. She enjoyed the challenge of the job and realized that fundraising was something she could do to make a difference.
Fundraising, Vodery says, “Is giving others the opportunity to do good,” and her approach centers on establishing what potential donors would like to accomplish, knowing that sincere giving comes from the heart of those who give of their time, talents, or treasure because a cause means something to them. The staff and board of UWSCC inspire giving by sharing that heart for their community and by helping people to understand the need.
The current needs in Southern Chester County are acute—from more food insecurity than ever to behavioral health crises, the isolation of seniors, and digital inequity. Contributions raised by UWSCC stay right here to support local projects focused in three areas: crisis intervention, independence through education, and family stability and health. UWSCC makes a significant impact in all of these areas by funding dozens of programs designed to meet pressing needs in the community.
“We don’t give money to agencies, but to programs,” Vodery says, so that those programs can have the biggest possible impact. In 2022–23, for example, a few of the programs funded by UWSCC include the emergency assistance and sustainability program delivered by Kennett Area Community Service, a behavioral health program run by LCH Health and Community Services, and youth development programs at the Garage Community and Youth Center, in addition to programs supporting seniors, early childhood education, young mothers, ESL learners, victims of domestic violence, and more. While this financial support is vital, UWSCC also provides other kinds of strategic support for these partner agencies so they stay strong. “I’m interacting with the leaders of these organizations all the time,” Vodery says.
By the community for the community
The allocation process itself is a unique aspect of how UWSCC operates—and another example of the power of community at work. It’s not Vodery, the board, or staff who decide where the money they raise goes. Rather, a diverse group of 40 volunteers from the community allocates the annual funding for programs. This group is made up of people of all ages and nationalities working in every sector of the community, from education to healthcare and local government. These volunteers read applications from local nonprofits requesting funding for programs, do site visits, ask questions, and ultimately decide which programs will receive funding and at what level. “In 2022–23, we were able to allocate $750,000 to 24 different programs delivered by 18 agencies,” Vodery says.
Although these numbers are impressive, part of Vodery’s vision is to increase funding in order to be able to allocate more money to more programs to meet more of the pressing needs. She would also love for every business in Southern Chester County to be involved in some way with the work of UWSCC—whether through volunteering, advocacy, or financial support.
Several local restaurants have been supporting UWSCC and helping to raise the profile of its work in the community through hosting “Dine and Donate” events. “Look for our monthly ‘Dine and Donate’ events to be held at restaurants throughout Southern Chester County,” Vodery says. “We’d like to thank The Naked Olive in Kennett Square for hosting this month’s event on February 28th.”
One of Vodery’s other goals is for UWSCC to become a hub for volunteers, connecting people with diverse opportunities to serve in their community. A Day of Caring event planned for the fall will give community members the opportunity to serve in a variety of capacities, from landscaping to painting and cleaning. She’d also like to establish a program that teaches young people the value of giving back, growing the next generation of philanthropists. All of this, Vodery says, comes out of her commitment to the mission of UWSCC. “I’m a person of faith,” she says, “and this is in part how I live out my faith.”
A small but mighty team
The staff working behind the scenes to make this tremendous impact in the community is a small but mighty team. “I’m grateful to work with such lovely professionals,” Vodery says. “Office Manager Lisa Tucker emanates kindness and warmth and is the heart and soul of the office. Our Finance Manager, Mercedes Diaz, chose to bring her talents and experience from a career at JPMorgan Chase to make a difference in the community working for UWSCC,” Vodery says. “And Development Director Selina Faulkner Toedter, who grew up in this community, is so rooted here and helps us all think outside the box.” Because of this staff, Vodery says, “We are the best and sincere stewards of people’s giving. We all care about how we can make an impact in our community.”
“I’ve learned a lot about myself in this position already,” Vodery says. “My father always told me that a manager does things the right way and a leader does the right thing. This position requires both.”
While it’s difficult to envision Southern Chester County without the vital support of UWSCC, Vodery’s dream is exactly that. “I’d love for this to be a community where we don’t need a United Way,” she says, “where all children are resilient, families are healthy, seniors are secure, and everyone has access to healthcare—where people aren’t living in crisis mode all the time and everyone is living with dignity and has a fair shot at being who they want to be.”
To find out more about UWSCC, their programs, and opportunities to help make a difference in our community, visit their website, sign up for their newsletter, and follow them on Instagram and Facebook.
Photos by Dylan Francis.