The Power of Partnerships: Sioux Empire United Way & The Sioux Falls School District

Collage of the Sioux Empire United Way logo, the Sioux Falls School District Logo, and an image of Christina Riss, Patti Lake-Torbert, and Dr. Jane Stavem recording a podcast

Each year, Sioux Empire United Way partners with 30 to 40 agencies to provide funding and support to the local nonprofits making a difference in the Sioux Empire. Among these partnerships, they are able to impact the lives of children, vulnerable adults, and people in crisis.

In December of 2023, our Chief Operations Officer, Christina Riss, sat down with Dr. Jane Stavem and Patti Lake-Torbert to discuss our long standing partnership with the Sioux Falls School District. 

Tune in to hear real-life stories about the direct impact of our partnership and how we work together to identify and meet the needs of students and families within our community. 



Jane: Hello, this is Jane Stavem, superintendent of the Sioux Falls School District, and this is our podcast. Join us for an audible look inside the Sioux Falls School District, where we'll put a spotlight on the people, places, and practices of our district.

Well, hello everybody, and welcome back again to our podcast. I'm Jane Stavem, the very lucky superintendent of the Sioux Falls School District. Today, my guests are two people who do so much for so many that I thought it was a great thing if we all sat down in the same room together and talked about what this partnership really means, which is between our school district and the United Way.

So with me today, I have Christina Riss, who is the Chief Operations Officer for United Way of the Sioux Empire, and Patti Lake-Torbert, who oversees all of our student services, counseling, social workers, kind of all of the things that are out in our schools that help us meet the needs of students and families in so many ways. And two lovely fellow women leaders, so welcome to the podcast.

I want to start with you, Christina, and talking about the United Way, which has been around for a long time. But give us kind of the elevator pitch if you will of what is the United Way and what do you do for a school district?

Christina: Yes, so Sioux Empire United Way has been around since 1929, and really our focus is to positively impact as many people as we possibly can within the Sioux Empire area. We really focus on impacting the lives of children, vulnerable adults, and people in crisis. So really, when you think about those populations, children, vulnerable adults, people in crisis, I think a natural partnership forms between our organization and the school district. 

Jane: Yeah, a lot of layers when you think about the layers of adults and the layers of children and what that means for some of our families. Patti, you see it from another angle. You see it kind of on that day-to-day level, knowing what some of our school leaders are working with and our staff, what they do to match up those needs and resources. Talk about who does that work and what does that look like day-to-day.

Patti: Right. So, I appreciate you saying that partnership with the Sioux Falls School District, Christina, because we are so fortunate that we have so many different partnerships, and they are needed. They're not just our kids; they're our community's kids and families. So, that help comes in so many ways, and that need is in every area. When we think about that, we educate children, we also are feeding children, we're also helping with clothing, we're helping with families that are homeless to families that are trying to maintain just what they have in their family, but it can be a tough goal.

So, we have social workers and counselors that are kind of the people that are on the ground doing the work as far as trying to meet those needs. But then we have administrators and teachers that obviously see that need and reach out for that help. And so that's where United Way has helped out in so many ways.

Jane: Christina, when people think about giving and they think about wanting their dollars to go directly to where a need is, can you two, kind of between the two of you, talk about how does the United Way, talk about that ,in terms of getting those dollars where they need to go? And Patti, talk about how you make the needs known so that an organization like the United Way can talk about the need, and people know how that bridge is built. What does that look like?

Christina: So, at United Way, we have a lot of volunteers. We rely on our volunteers to really allow our mission to move forward. So, one of my main roles at United Way is working with the community impact division. We have around 60 volunteers that spend over a thousand hours every year reviewing funding proposals that are coming from different organizations within the Sioux Empire. They're meeting with those agencies; they're spending hours reviewing that documentation and making funding recommendations. So, it really is a very lengthy process. 

So when an individual looking to make a gift to our organization can do so with the confidence of knowing that they have been well vetted. Our volunteers really have looked at all of the needs, and every program that is supported by United Way has strong outcomes and that financial need for support. And that process really allows us... We are currently raising funds to support 75 different programs within our community. And so, it really allows us to have that significant impact within the community in all of those different areas. 

Jane: When you think about those 75 programs, that is a lot. That's a lot of need, and it's a lot of meeting the need. What does that look like for a need that's been met for us, Patti?

Patti: So, we have the United Way. They say yes, we're willing to support you. What's an area of impact that we've seen from those gifts? One of the first gifts that I remember receiving from United Way that impacted actually another group within our community, LSS, was with counseling services in the PATH program. We knew years ago that there was a need for our parents to be able to connect up with mental health resources and how to do that. And is there any way that the school could help with that? Really, it was LSS working with United Way and saying, could you help us with that funding? I believe that we even had a counselor or two that came out and spoke to the need that was there. And through that funding with United Way to LSS, then we were the recipients of that. We really were and continue to be. And so, that's the other piece that we are always hoping for is that we have a lot of needs, and we will put that out any way we can. It can be through social media; it can be directly calling somebody that we may have a connection with. But what we love is when it's sustainable. And that's what United Way does for so many of our programs that they offer help with within the Sioux Falls School District is that we're able to sustain them more than just maybe even a few years or a year or two.

Jane: One of the lines that a school district walks is how much support do we lend and then what's the responsibility of the community. Our primary goal is to educate children, but children can't concentrate or be fully present for their learning when they're worried about some other things. What are some really practical examples, Patti, of what you've experienced with a student who has a very practical need that's kind of just all-consuming, where they're worried, afraid, suffering maybe even, and they’re not ready to be in a classroom? What does that look like and how has the United Way stepped in to fill the gap?
Patti: You know, I look at... there were needs before, but certainly when COVID hit, food insecurity was absolutely huge, also just the stress and pressure that families had and how that then was also placed onto kids. So us recognizing that if we can help out the family, it's going to help out the student so that the student isn't quite as stressed and anxiety-filled. 
Jane: What form does that take? Is that a gift card, food, gas money? What does that look like?

Patti: We were just actually talking before the podcast here, that when COVID hit in March of 2020, it was not but maybe three weeks later, if even that, that United Way had contacted the school and had said, "How can we help? We want to help." And it came in the form of Hy-Vee gift cards. It was probably the initial thing that was discussed, and would that be helpful. And we knew right away it was because we even had families reaching out to us saying, "We don't even know if we can go to the store. We don't know how to, for some of us, we've lost our jobs, and we don't know if we're going to get paid. For others, we have people that are sick with COVID." That was very significant and that was an amazing gift that came within, again, about I think by the end of April we had a program in place where families were able to reach out to the school district and say, "My family has been affected by COVID. This is how they were affected.  Is there any way that you can help us?" And we were able to say “yes.” With United Way's help, we were able to give you a Hy-Vee gift card in order to do that. The stories that were coming in were amazing because it was all, you know, some were the ones that we know that I just mentioned about maybe a family member was sick or maybe even a family member had died. One family actually used that gift card to help buy food for people who had come in, family members who had come in for that funeral, to families who they had lost jobs and weren't making money. How are they going to be able to make it to that next possible job opportunity? We had families where parents were business owners, and now that had just plummeted the amount of money they're making. Other families were saying, "We can meet some bills; we could probably pay for food, but we're not going to be able to pay for maybe fixing our car." We were able to offset those expenses by saying, "Use this gift card to pay for groceries this week and use that money to fix your car so that then you can get to work." Story after story, it was really about maintaining family stress low and anxiety level at a certain stage so that then that would of course affect the child so that they can say, "Okay, I can focus in on school."

Jane: One of the things that I think people don't always understand, particularly if you haven't experienced it yourself to a degree or you know with any consistency, is the impact of kind of one thing being the tipping point for a family. And when circumstances change, how close to the edge of not having a number of things stay afloat? Talk about the importance, Patti, of a tank of gas or a single rent payment. What does that set in motion if people don't get one of those kinds of things right when it's needed?

Patti: You think about how that anxiety builds up in a family and an individual. But in this case, we're talking about families. It builds up, and it's at that tipping point, where it's like, "Okay, what do I do?" During the time of being able to use the Hy-Vee gift cards that United Way funded, we were able to go in and say, "Let's relieve a little bit of that stress so that we can really start to get to what the issues were and relax the family just a little bit, give them that time for relaxation.” And then to be able to say, “What is it that you need to do, and what can we help with? What are some other services?" Because we know that those gift cards were not going to necessarily save their lives, but it was going to take off the edge so that then we can say, "We're not enabling you to be dependent upon us; we're trying to help you so that you can fill up that gas tank, pay that bill, so that then you can start thinking, you can get to work." Those are the stories we have. We have stories of a family moving here from out of state, and they literally needed just a little bit of help for about two or three weeks so that they had time to look for jobs. That same family two years later is still working at those same jobs that they got. I don't know what it would have looked like for them had they not had that opportunity.

Jane: I grew up in a family that had a pickup and a car. If your dad was a farmer, you had a pickup, and your mom drove the car. If one of those vehicles broke down, you had the other one. If you're a single-vehicle family and something goes wrong with that vehicle, we know the expense sometimes involved in that. I remember learning early in my career; I did a simulation that said, "This one thing happens, there's a domino effect." Christina, have you seen the domino effect where United Way has stepped in and been able to alleviate what might have been more catastrophic?

Christina: I mean, I think that's so many of our programs, right? Whether you're able to provide scholarships for childcare or you’re able to provide scholarships for an out-of-school time program or even for mental health services. If an individual is not able to afford that, the idea of going to a counselor is overwhelming. But if you're able to provide that support, they're able to go in and get that service without that additional stress. That's really like what Patti's talking about, that ability to just refocus and be able to move forward and think through all of the things that you need to do in order to successfully move forward. Without those little pieces of people in the community helping to support that, I think, like you said, that just continues to snowball for individuals. 

Jane: That's the power of it. It has the ability to change a trajectory, and that trajectory may be going in a really bad direction. With one touchpoint or a couple of interventions, you change the trajectory and allow a family to continue to be whole, recover, and continue on in a good, positive path.

Patti: I have a great story that I think is going to connect this up. We had a student, a couple of years back, now going to be over three years back, that was in our health careers program looking to get their certification for CNA. At a time when their family really probably could have used the student working and contributing money to the family, and we were able, again with that help, to say to the student, "Keep working on it. You're so close, and your end goal is actually to med school, so keep working on this. Let us see if we can help out again, just with a few touch points of being able to assist so that she could stay on track." Four years later, she is still in college and looking at pre-med as her undergraduate as she obviously is focused on med school. We do talk about wondering, would she still be there? Would she still be even on that trajectory of becoming possibly a doctor? So again, it wasn't in our big picture, maybe it wasn't life-changing. I think in that family, it was life-changing. 

Jane: So it's what we do, life-changing. I think it's really interesting when we think about meeting needs in a community. There's a lot, and it's a lot to discern because you know, while you feel so many, there are still some that go unmet, or maybe another agency picks up in some way. Christina, how do you discern when you're looking at allocating funding in our district? The United Way provides some funding for our after-school programming. Money goes to some of the programs that we support through counseling, social services, kinds of things. How do you allocate, looking at programs that stay in place for a long time versus things that support situational needs like a family losing a job or a home or a catastrophic event that kind of throws things into an unexpected need? How do you discern between them?

Christina: The interesting thing with United Way is when you talk to a lot of organizations, one time gifts or one time needs are sometimes actually easier to find a supporter to support that need. And that's really where United Way comes in. We look at most of the programs that we're supporting, we want them to be able to be sustainable. We know that they're meeting a significant need within the community. So we really are that long-term funding support to allow programs to be sustainable and continue to meet those needs. As long as, of course, they are still being able to show those strong outcomes and if there is still that need for support. At the same time, you know there’s always, the communities changing, the needs in the community are constantly changing and so every year, we do have new programs that apply for funding and are able to really support some of those new needs that are coming forward that way as well.

Jane: Is there anything that stuck out to you over the last year that you've seen kind of emerging, if we take COVID out of it now or a ways out from that, have there been other needs that have emerged that you're kind of seeing a pattern or a new trend?

Christina: I would say, and I was just visiting with someone about this yesterday, when you look at the number of programs and things that we support, we kind of have groupings of programs like out-of-school time, seniors, mental health. The ones that have significantly grown, and I do think that a lot of it has to do with COVID and kind of coming out of that, but the greatest impact areas are at-risk individuals and families and mental health. By far, those are the greatest needs that we're seeing within the community. I'm sure that as a district, those are the same types of things that you're seeing. We definitely, over the last few years, have continued to receive additional requests from those types of programs and have been able to increase our support for current programs but also take on the support of new programs that have come in during that time.

Jane: When you think of support, we just finished our organization as a school district, we do a United Way Drive, and I believe we increased our giving beyond last year, which I'm very proud of with our staff. They see that work day-to-day and how the United Way meets so many needs, and we're part of how we give back that way. Proud to say that. But when I also think about funding that's dependent upon the services being available, we can have money to pay for mental health services or food insecurity or temporary housing, but yet those things have to exist for people to then take advantage of them. We know that those systems are stressed as well. We need more mental health providers, more affordable housing, more food availability, not just what we provide. If I was to ask both of you if you could wave your magic wand for something that would make a significant difference over the next three years in our community, what do you think we really need the most or what would you love to have happen the most to see the needs being met more than ever before?

Christina: I do think when you think about mental health, we do have such a shortage of clinicians that are able to provide those services. That would be my magic wand. I have a passion for that area as well. If we were able to do something to attract more clinicians to our state or have them go into that profession, I think that is such an important piece that impacts every other aspect of an individual's life. If we were able to increase that and provide more services to individuals in need, I think that would have an incredible impact on so many lives.

Patti: I would agree with that because I think that it was actually happening before COVID. COVID just happened to highlight that. I do think that people are reaching out now even in times of need when it is not as severe, and they're just saying, "I just want to be healthier. I want my family to be healthier." But then we do have quite a few individuals that need that help right now. So if we had more clinicians, if we had more availability to meet our mental health needs in this community, how wonderful it would be. A part of that is also, I'm going to be greedy here, those that could speak more than one language because we are a very diverse community and we have such a wonderful population here. How do we meet the mental health needs of all of our different groups? That would be very much at the top of my list.

Jane: Well, this community is amazing, and I hope people will continue to contribute to United Way as you make your way through a full funding season. When does that end, and how do people give?

Christina: It kind of ends when we reach our goal. Like I mentioned earlier, we're raising funds right now to support 75 different programs. The funding for those 75 programs is truly contingent on us being able to achieve that campaign goal. Typically, we're still right in the busy season of it all. Typically, we're able to wrap up that campaign in the early part of the year, in February timeframe. So if you are interested in being able to support those 75 programs with one gift that has been well-vetted, certainly reach out to our organization, visit our website,, and you'll be able to be connected to opportunities to make a gift that way. 

Jane: Always good to do those charitable donations before the end of December, so something to think about. I love thinking about partnership and with partnerships, you're such a great bridge for that, Christina, with the United Way. It allows so many individuals as well as organizations to partner up, build the bridge between meeting the need, whether it's the school district, it’s our elderly population, or some of our city programs. All of that contributes to the health of Sioux Falls and the greater Sioux Falls area. And so we're grateful for your work, and we're grateful that we have so many giving people that want to meet the need. And if people are aware of a need, they can certainly call United Way, call the school district, and if we don't have what's needed, we can usually connect people with the right services and resources. So we are public entities, and that's what we do – serve our public. Thanks for being with me, and we appreciate what you both do to connect people to meet the need. 

Christina & Patti: Thanks for having us.