Director of communications, United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta
New Orleans is about 470 miles west of Atlanta. But for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, this was a short distance to travel to find safety. When an estimated 100,000 people arrived in Atlanta in the days surrounding the storm, Erin Steele, 28, director of communications for the United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta (UWMA), began the difficult task of helping them start anew.
"A lot of people from New Orleans had family and friends in Atlanta," says Steele. "When it was apparent that people were going to be staying for a few months, we had to figure out a way to support those evacuees in the long term. Several of them are still in the community and they are our new neighbors."
United Way's stated vision is to "build a stronger America by mobilizing our communities to improve people's lives." The organization had to find community resources to support Katrina victims while maintaining existing programs.
Steele was the organizational representative on the steering committee for "Neighbors Helping Neighbors Find a Job Now," the largest job fair in Georgia's history with 15,000 people in attendance. She worked with community partners, such as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, to provide not just job opportunities at the event, but information about skills training, child care information, and other services. The event was planned and executed in just a couple of weeks.
"She took a leadership role and led the effort to help resettle these folks," says Bari Love, UWMA's interim VP for community engagement. "That's where United Way saw Erin bust through from being a hard-working communications person to [seizing the opportunity to] really work the media, community partners, and working with the government."
She also managed fundraising efforts at a time where post-Katrina donor fatigue could set in, raising nearly $1 million.
Steele got the position with UWMA in 2003 after earning her Masters degree in journalism from the University of Memphis. While studying, she decided to focus on a career in nonprofit, where her work would be helping to achieve community-wide goals. She thinks of herself as a link between the efforts that directly help those in need and the community at large.
"My true skills are in connecting people, which I wouldn't get to use as much in journalism," Steele says.
Over the next ten years, Steele will be tackling Atlanta's homelessness and early education issues. Preparing children to start school has been shown to improve lives in the long-term. Right now, Love says Georgia is 46th in the country in SAT scores.
The biggest obstacle to facing these problems is a shortage of resources - money, people, and time. Steele wears many hats to fill the gap. "The same things that make it exciting to come to work every day make it a challenge," says Steele.
As for the southern environment that she is living in, Steele says she enjoys the cosmopolitanism and vibrancy of Atlanta life. The pleasure of the UWMA work can be summed up just as simply: "The mission and the work itself is what gets me up every day."