Lasting Change: Engaging Leaders of United Way of Southern Nevada

LIKE MANY WHO ARRIVE IN LAS VEGAS, I found my way to United Way of Southern Nevada. At the time, I worked in human resources in a hotel-casino on the Strip, under the supervision of a great boss eager to broaden the range of employee services. He introduced me to UWSN’s Earn It Keep It Save It program, which offers free tax services to families with household incomes less than $51,000.

After earning my Internal Revenue Service certification and learning about the Earned Income Tax Credit, a federal antipoverty program, I became a volunteer income tax assistant, or VITA. In the weeks leading up to the tax-filing deadline, I helped more than 50 co-workers receive refunds. Without prompting, co-workers emailed me and called my office, thanking me profusely. They updated me on their refund checks and how they spent the money on food and kids’ clothing, or how they saved it.

This experience changed and brightened my views on everything—jobs, taxes and, most importantly, people. Firsthand, I watched how UWSN positively impacted people in the Vegas Valley by improving their lives. But what I didn’t learn, until recently, was just how far back the roots of this organization reach, and how many programs and services it offers. To know what UWSN does, it helps to know where it’s been, where it is now and where it’s going. Recently, diamondcake met the changing faces of United Way to re-appreciate the organization’s impact.

Bill Boyd: Looking Back

UWSN has been advancing the common good since 1957, when gaming legend Sam Boyd—whose name now adorns casinos (Sam’s Town Hotel & Gambling Hall) and stadiums—founded the local United Way chapter. His son William S. Boyd, executive chairman of Boyd Gaming, continues the legacy of his father. Indeed, UWSN remains a key part of Boyd Gaming’s charitable giving initiatives. Boyd is happy to discuss the values his parents instilled in him—and in the company.

“‘If you are successful, you have an obligation to give back to the very community that made you successful,’” 80-year-old Boyd remembers his father saying. “I also recall my dad saying that our community needed a philanthropic organization that would distribute donated funds to legitimate charities.”

Back then, in a postwar Las Vegas still influenced by the Mob, a legitimate and successful businessman like Sam Boyd received requests daily for donations. But he had no way to tell which charitable organizations were credible. So, more than 50 years ago, he helped to introduce United Way of Southern Nevada to our community.

Boyd and his family have always given to UWSN. When he and his father co-founded Boyd Gaming in 1975, they made sure their philanthropic values were also the company’s. But he is quick to credit his employees—he calls them “team members”—for strongly supporting the United Way throughout the years.

It’s definitely a noteworthy observation: A casino company emphasizing charitable aims during the ’70s was nowhere near as common as it is today.

“At Boyd Gaming, part of our mission statement is giving back to our communities,” said Boyd. “Our team members have embraced that mission statement personally. Almost all families are exposed to unfortunate circumstances in their lives and therefore want to help others with similar problems.”

Today UWSN focuses its efforts on three key areas: health, education and financial stability—what the group calls “the building blocks of life.” Since the organization sees these as linked and interdependent, all of its programs fall under these categories. After all, you can’t succeed in school with poor attendance from sickness or lack of immunizations. An educated person can’t succeed without learning how to balance a checkbook or save for a car. And kids can’t stay in school if their parents are jumping from job to job, apartment to apartment.

UWSN acts like a shepherd, bringing together a network of donors, volunteers and community leaders. By uniting and synergizing collective passion, expertise and resources, UWSN affects positive change. The organization weaves a solid community fabric—this fabric’s origins arose from the Boyds’ philanthropic spirit.

Obviously, Boyd is proud of his father’s legacy, of the fact that his company relies on UWSN to distribute charitable donations by Boyd Gaming’s employees. He hopes his company will be remembered for helping to mobilize the caring power of people in Las Vegas.

“I hope Boyd Gaming will be known for having worked diligently to impart giving back in its team members,” he says.

Cass Palmer: Present Day

Cass Palmer’s transition to UWSN president and CEO was natural. He had sat on the organization’s board of directors for 14 years before assuming his current role, in 2011. Being on the board for so long affords Palmer an intimate perspective on daily operations. It also gives him a historical view of UWSN’s ongoing evolution.

His other advantage is having had the counsel—and couch—of Bill Boyd himself.

“When I joined Boyd, I spent many an afternoon in Bill’s office,” admits Palmer. “Bill is notorious for his couch chats. We’d talk philosophically about the company, about his vision for the company.”

Inevitably, the subject of philanthropy arose. Palmer admires how Bill’s father instilled in him the desire to help those less fortunate. Palmer watched as he taught the same values to all his managers at Boyd Gaming.

As a new human resources manager at Bally’s Las Vegas way back when, Palmer had employees approaching him with myriad concerns and problems. He quickly learned to call the United Way, which would put them in touch with the right agencies.

“But it was when I left the office environment and began learning more about where I was sending employees that I fell in love with this organization,” he says.

Experience, insight and knowledge are great attributes. But Palmer also is praised widely for his warmth. A Las Vegas native, he understands our city’s challenges and he has sincere empathy for our community—which explains why he’s so eager and thorough in discussing UWSN’s mission, and why he loves relating stories of kids and families persevering and even triumphing against adversity with the help of the organization.

He doesn’t give marching orders, though; that’s not his job.

“We get our directions from the community,” he says matter-of-factly. His most recent orders stem from last fall’s 300-plus-page community assessment. In it, UWSN embarked on a large-scale research initiative to help guide and shape its path. The organization reached out to donors, recipients, employees, volunteers and community partners for feedback, because the idea is to drive community change based on real issues. With the help of Applied Analysis and the Lincy Institute in Las Vegas, the assessment gathers the very best practices in academic, economic and policy research.

“We are working now on creating solutions to meet the challenges our community faces,” says Palmer. “We’re convening in July to begin outlining and implementing.”

Palmer isn’t afraid, either, to imagine things as faraway as his own obituary. When asked what he’d like the newspaper to say about him when he’s gone, his answer is immediate.

“Cass Palmer brought compassion and direction for the organization to just go out there and make a difference in the community,” he says. “That’s it.”

Chelsie Campbell: Future Face

Chelsie Campbell, 26, is a member of UWSN’s Young Philanthropists Society, a dynamic gathering of 20- to 40-year-old leaders committed to making a difference. They’re younger donors getting their philanthropic feet wet. And they’re already making waves.

“Everyone who’s lived in Las Vegas long enough knows someone who has been touched by the United Way,” says Campbell. “So the organization has been really good about bringing in young professionals who want to help but haven’t yet found a good place to do that. Many us were born and raised here; we have families here. We know we need to give back to a community that allowed us to succeed.”

Last fall, Campbell stewarded a financial literacy program for 550 students at magnet school Walter Bracken Elementary. The program, called The Piggy Bank, teaches kids—from kindergarten (age 5) to fifth grade (age 10)—how to save money by simulating a banking experience.

Campbell and her fellow YPS members—with the help of Bracken, Silver State Schools Credit Union and Junior Achievement of Southern Nevada—converted an old janitor’s storage closet into a kid-friendly walk-up bank-teller window. There, every Friday, students stuff their little hands into their pockets, dust lint off coins and deposit pennies, nickels, dimes, and sometimes quarters into real bank accounts set up by United Way on behalf of Bracken Elementary. Credit union and YPS volunteers patiently assist the little ones.

“The kids came up with the name The Piggy Bank,” notes Campbell with a smile. “The cool part is there’s also a six-module curriculum component, going over what it means to put away money. It’s a holistic approach to teaching kids about savings.”

Incredibly, the Bracken bunch has managed to save $20,000 thus far. At the program’s start, Campbell asked kids what they planned to do with their savings and their aims were low—candy, bicycles. But by curriculum’s end, those goals grew bigger—the students hoped to be able one day to afford a car or even a house.

“They learned to recognize the power of having a dollar in the bank,” says Campbell. “They saw the light.”

Campbell has long seen the value of education and giving back. A Las Vegas native, too, she attended Trinity Christian High School. She majored in communications and Spanish literature at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, then graduated from the William S. Boyd School of Law five years ago.

“To be in the same room with Bill Boyd and his legacy—what he’s done for the city, for the industry and our community—was an honor,” she says.

After passing the bar exam, she went to work for NV Energy as an attorney in the Government Affairs office. “I’d heard about United Way my whole life, but I was introduced to the organization through NV Energy,” says Campbell.

She joined the YPS, a year and half ago. She finds that the more involved she becomes, the more the organization means to her—and her to them. Recently, her dad was in the hospital and she was forced to skip an UWSN-sponsored event. The next day she received a card signed by everyone in the group. It moved her.

But she didn’t tear up the way she did when she watched 2000 needy families receiving gift cards from anonymous donors as part of a $1 million Secret Santa effort, last December.

“It was an awesome experience,” she says. “It’s not something you ever forget.”

For more information on United Way of Southern Nevada, visit www.UWSN.org.






Previously published by diamondcake. Updated by smallTALK. Archived for the United Way of Southern Nevada.

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