He can tell you more than you want to know about Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz – and he knows what poverty does to a community.

By Pepper Parr

HAMILTON, ON  November 11, 2012  For Len Lifchus, this time of year tends to be all about the numbers – are the giving’s where we need them to be?  Are the various teams on top of their targets?  Are we going to be able to raise what we need?

Len Lifchus would like to be in the business of giving people fishing rods and teaching them how to fish and feed themselves but as often as not he is giving them fish because they cannot feed themselves.

With more than 35 years in the volunteer sector, Len Lifchus guides the Burlington/Greater Hamilton United Way towards raising the $7 million + needed to fund the agencies that provide services needed in the community.

For the Burlington/Greater Hamilton United Way, 44%  of the 2012 target has been reached.  Burlington is a little behind its target.  The community has raised $746,834 of the $2.1 million it needs.

Combined Hamilton and Burlington have reached the 44% level but Burlington is lagging and in our part of that pumpkin patch we are at 36% – got more work to do – so if you’ve gotten this far and have not made a pledge – think about what you can give and make the pledge – we will be here when you get back.

Burlington is a very affluent community but there are significant pockets of poverty and Burlington is a more expensive place to live in.  Lifchus, who recently moved to Burlington, will tell you “gasoline is more expensive, LINK  laundry is more expensive, food costs more”.

Immigrants need help getting settled; there are no major industries in Burlington that need workers.  Nutrition is an ongoing problem that comes back to plaque is later when poor health issues become the problem.

The face of poverty isn’t as visible in Burlington; you don’t see it between all the cars parked at the malls.  “The faith community is very strong in Burlington” explains Lifchus, but there is only so much they can do.  Our food banks are not a fact of life – they were put in place to meet a crisis and the crisis stayed and became a part of life for the poor and now the working poor.

Len Lifchus has been employed by the voluntary sector for over 35 years – more than 16  years with the Canadian Red Cross Society Blood Program and the last 18 years with the United Way.

Born and raised in Vancouver, B.C. and a graduate in political science from the University of British Columbia, Len has spent his adult life on a career path of serving others.

Len joined the United Way in 1995 as the Executive Director of the United Way of the Central & South Okanagan Similkameen and moved to Peterborough, Ontario in 1999 to become the CEO of the United Way of Peterborough & District.  After a 10 ½ year career in Peterborough he moved on to become the CEO of the United Way of Burlington & Greater Hamilton – Canada’s 12th largest United Way.

He has watched changes take place in the way we care of those who are not able to take care of themselves.  “Food banks were a stop gap measure during a difficult economic phase – now they are full time operations” says Lifchus.  “We aren’t geared to run this type of operation the way we have to but without food banks we would have very serious social problems to deal with.

One of the agencies the United Way funds is a program that makes food available to students who are not getting the nutrition they need at home.

The United Way doesn’t run programs; it funds agencies that run programs and each year at the end of the fund raising driver the really hard work of deciding who is going to be funded and who isn’t going to be funded begin.

Part of the Burlington campaign cabinet – a group that meets under the direction of the Paddy Torsney, the Burlington campaign chair who co-ordinates with Len Lifchus on a weekly basis.

The Burlington/Greater Hamilton United Way funds 133 programs and Lifchus is the first to tell you that the issue of poverty is not going away.  He will also tell you that people are giving differently.  There is much more one-on-one donor solicitation; that is organizations approaching a donour and soliciting funds.  When those individual appeals succeed there is less money available to organizations like the United Way that are not tightly focused.

Also, there are more Family Trusts, financial structures that wealthy people use to channel their funds to specific targets – again lessening the funds available to un-targeted organizations like the United Way.

What the United Way does, and can do because it is much closer to the daily grind that is poverty, is recognize evolving needs and fund agencies that are focused on those new needs.

Teen suicide is a growing concern; one that is growing far too fast and no one is quite sure how to address the problem.  Community groups, often started by families that have lost a family member to suicide get formed and as they grow the find they need more in the way of support – the United Way is there to help them create the infrastructure they need to effectively develop these agencies.

Managing the fund raising and then managing the disbursement of the funds raised is the day to day part of what Len Lifchus does.  He also teaches in the evenings and sits on more boards than there are on a Monopoly game.

Everyone looks for distractions from the daily grind and for Lifchus it is musicals.  He can recite lines from some of his favourites.  Les Cages aux Folles  is at the top of his list along with Hair and Les Miz – and don’t forget Ragtime, all amongst his favourites.

He has been following the selection of “Dorothy” for the next production of  The Wizard of Oz– “of course” declares Lifchus, “there is never going to be another Judy Garland”. Lifchus actually gets a little misty eyed when he talks about the musical productions.

Fun and relaxation only take him so far.  The Halton Regional Poverty Roundtable is an think group that the United Way is both funding to some degree and providing some of the administrative support.  Lifchus fully understands the need to think about the problem of poverty and take a long, deep hard look at the root causes and begin the search for better solutions.  “Change” Lifchus will tell you, “starts here.”

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