FARGO - Erik Hatch, chairman of the United Way's 2018 fundraising campaign, broke the ice in front of a crowd of more than 650 people gathered Wednesday, Sept. 12, by showing a childhood photo.

"I want to introduce you to awkward Erik Hatch 35 or so years ago. He was quite the looker," he joked.

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Hatch, owner of Hatch Realty and Hatch Consulting in Fargo, was on hand to announce the United Way's 2018 campaign goal, but he first shared how he personally benefited from the United Way growing up in a single-parent household in Fargo.

He described his mom, Betty, as a "warrior" who worked three jobs to support him and his sister, but said he always longed for the father who left the picture after his parents divorced.

His mom recognized that and signed him up for the Big Brother Big Sister program.

"I was getting served by a group called the United Way long before I ever knew what the United Way was," he said.

Looking back, he marveled at the fact that he received support from people who didn't even know him, and he thanked those in attendance for carrying on that mission.

In closing, he challenged the community to raise $6.25 million this year to support the United Way's programs. The nonprofit surpassed its goal of $5.9 million for 2017.

Dollars at work

For several years, the United Way's programs have addressed four bold goals:

• Reduce hunger and homelessness

• Prepare children to succeed

• Help people be independent

• Lift people out of poverty

Kristi Huber, United Way's president and CEO, explained that Wednesday's event would focus solely on ways the organization is preparing children to succeed.

"We believe that preparing children to succeed is the foundation for making our community as strong and as healthy as it can be. Together, it takes all of us across the community," she said.

One way the United Way has been serving young children is through its new pre-K program in West Fargo.

West Fargo Public School Superintendent Beth Slette said there has long been a need for such a program. She explained that some students were starting kindergarten without ever having access to books or spending time interacting with their peers.

She said those students were starting school behind most of their class and early intervention was key to closing that gap.

"A child at 4 years old who lives in poverty has 30 million fewer words that they've heard than a child not living in poverty. These children were coming and they had needs right from the get-go in kindergarten and we wanted to give them an opportunity to be successful that first year and close the achievement gap and poverty in our community."

Huber explained that early intervention and strategic investments are so important because if you "change the first five years, you change everything."

Cory Steiner, superintendent of Northern Cass Public Schools, took the stage to talk about how the United Way's investment helps his school.

Last year, the United Way provided the school with a mental health counselor one day a week. This year, it will be two days.

He explained how important that is for the students and parents due to their location 25 miles outside of Fargo. He talked about how challenging it could be for working parents to get time off to take their children to see a counselor in Fargo. In some cases, parents who didn't have the flexibility or the vacation time would have to choose between food on the table and counseling.

The issue hits close to home for Steiner because he suffers from clinical depression. He shared that his daughter does as well.

Steiner said the reason he shared his daughter's diagnosis was to illustrate how she is thriving today because she had access to a therapist, medicine and a supportive family. He said every child deserves the same.

"This issue is not a school problem; it is a community problem. Our learners are your future workers, your neighbors, and maybe even your future in-law," he said.

"Addressing mental health issues is not the sole responsibility of those at home or those working in our schools," Steiner said, adding: "We have an obligation to start listening ... to start seeing ... and most importantly, to start acting on the information we have about our children and their needs."