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Durel with some of the fruit given away to area residents during the COVID-19 crisis.

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Denise Durel is president and CEO of United Way of SWLA.

“Everyday is a new day, everyday is different and we’re just taking on the challenges as they’re presented to us. Where’s the need, what can we do, and let’s just do it,” said Denise Durel, president and CEO of United Way of SWLA for 11 years.

Her statement sums up most of what United Way has been doing and continues to do in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and how it’s affecting many members of the community.

United Way of Southwest Louisiana is the oldest nonprofit member of the SWLA Economic Development Alliance, and is celebrating its 80th anniversary in Lake Charles this October.

“I am beyond proud ... just honored our team has stepped up, our volunteers have just answered the call and continue to answer the call and we’re just so proud and honored to have been part of this effort in Southwest Louisiana,” Durel said. “We want to make sure that we continue to be relevant and we believe the first part of that is helping our community by responding and we did so full effort. Our entire team did whatever they needed to do.”

Durel explained the “hot word” this year was “essential.” Although United Way’s workers and volunteers were not part of that list, Durel said that they “in theory put ourselves on that list. Our team went into action — we took care of each other, we listened to what the Department of Health had to say and all the safety precautions and we continued to work.”

A total of 2,445 volunteer hours have been contributed to the COVID response since from March 16 to June 24 by the United Way of SWLA.

“I actually always had the desire to help people in my community. I grew up in a household that we needed help, and so it was just natural for me to want to give back — kind of pay it forward, so to speak. When I was young and married and had a small child, I got involved in my community,” Durel said.

She would volunteer nights and weekends, even between homework and taking care of her children.

“One day I had an opportunity. We had done a pretty large event, fundraising for a nonprofit, and they asked me to go and be a member of their staff.” Although unsure of her ability to do such a thing, she accepted the job and continued to work with the Muscular Dystrophy Association as an entry-level fundraiser, morphing into a 20-year employment.

When she decided to come back to Louisiana after a move to Ohio, she was “honored with being offered this position” and has worked for United Way of Southwest Louisiana ever since. She said she is “loving every minute of it.”

“My first concern was information,” confessed Durel when asked her thoughts when COVID-19 emerged as a pandemic. “When people don’t have information, it only makes things a lot more frantic.

“There are still so many unknowns about COVID, but I know the scientists and the researchers and the medical professionals are doing a great job of getting a handle on everything ... our first thought was ‘how do we get information out to help the community understand what we do know?’ ”

United Way of SWLA activated their new 211 line and began working for the Department of Health and the CDC to answer people’s questions revolving around non-emergency information about the pandemic that is raging not only around the state but the globe.

As of Wednesday, they have handled 84,206 calls and 35,700 texts relating to COVID-19 information and questions, and 44,536 texts for food stamps.

“We have the ability — and I think we proved that with COVID — to be reactive in a second. We can pool resources, we’re all about partnerships and collaboration and having relationships with people so that when there’s a need, we can just make a decision on what needs to be done and again, move forward and get it done,” Durel said. “Our community was saying very loud and clear that there was a gap and a need, and they looked at us to fill it — and we did,”

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Denise Durel, president and CEO of United Way of SWLA, right, with a volunteer chef who came to Lake Charles and stayed for several months. The chef planned and cooked all of the 60,000 hot meals the United Way of SWLA served out of the Trinity Baptist Church kitchen.

“We look at things from a global perspective across all the human services and all the needs of our community; we’re not siloed with one issue or one concern.”

United Way served 60,327 hot meals from four locations by volunteers, gave 10,800 groceries adding up to 216 tons of proteins, fruits and vegetables to families, and donated 600 grocery boxes for local food pantry.

They also have received 175 ALICE applications and spent $34,360.61 in assisting 52 households with rent, utilities and food.

The United Way’s COVID fund that began earlier in the year was able to raise more than $435,000. Gifts came from all over towards the fund, including from a Kansas company, which only further helped United Way of SWLA to support the area community. Overall, as of Wednesday, $95,495.12 was spent on food, and $34,360.61 on utilities and rent.

Other acts of service included feeding 4,480 frontline workers from areas of health care, civic, cashiers and housekeeping. A total of $45,173.54 has been spent on hot meals, thanks to collaborations with 15 local restaurants who stepped up to the challenge.

Thanks to the newly created Food for Friends program, which serves hard-working families that had to file for unemployment and wait weeks for relief, 52 families across the community received grocery cards with a total of $29,525. Some of the hardest hits due to the pandemic came from the fact many people had to be laid off or couldn’t work, and the lapse of time waiting for approval from agencies that could help proved vastly difficult.

“We’re buying groceries to help people get through that transition period,” explained Durel. “We were really excited to help these people and make sure they had food for their families.”

Recovery is another large part of what United Way is looking forward to as these uncertain times continue to arise. Nearly 50,239 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed in Louisiana, and United Way continues their goal of “supporting our business and industry partners just as we do our community members in need.”

“We’re in this for the long haul. If there is a need or a gap, we want to hear about it,” Durel said.

As of Wednesday, United Way of SWLA agreed to purchase all the uniforms for the entire Head Start program here in Calcasieu Parish, so those children will have at least one set of uniforms provided to them.

“We’re also helping in Jeff Davis Parish — we really just, every day, as different needs come in we’re able to sit down and discuss how we can do this. We’re thankful to have such wonderful donors to support us in our effort,” Durel said.

United Way of SWLA has also decided they need to change how they look at funding and supporting. Durel said the pandemic showed them just how important collaboration is, and they call to those siloed across the state to reach out and make the same shift to fund those organizations where collaboration is at the forefront of their operations.

“We know that the more people you can bring to the table, the more organizations that are willing to share their skill and their talents, then that’ll be more people that we are able to help and the more success we will have at helping them,” she said.

Collaboration was, and still is, key in United Way being able to provide the thousands of meals and funds to those in need. They were able to spend about $35,000 helping people pay bills and groceries during these tough times.

“I want (the community) to know that we are here for them and every person in our community. We want everyone to have an opportunity for success — this is our 80th year — we’re not going anywhere and we want to be able to continue to transfer and to change ... so we can be the strength the community needs and provide the resources and support that the community needs,” Durel said.

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