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Gentry ready for United Way helm

News Photo by Julie Riddle Joseph Gentry, new executive director of the United Way of Northeast Michigan, stands Monday amid filing cabinets and desks ready for a move to new headquarters in downtown Alpena.

ALPENA — When Joseph Gentry looked at the Christmas wish lists for the giving tree at his church, he didn’t see toys or the latest electronic gadget.

“Here’s a 9-year-old kid that wants underwear for Christmas,” he said. “It’s so humbling.”

Gentry, recently appointed the new executive director for the United Way of Northeast Michigan, has the experience and financial know-how to do the job.

More than that, though, Gentry is ready because of what he knows and what he has seen.

Homelessness. Hunger. A mom on a wish list, right here in Alpena, asking for laundry soap, socks, gloves, boots.

“The needs are great, oh my gosh,” the new executive director said.

Gentry replaces Sonya Thomas, who announced her departure this summer, telling The News at the time an unexpected family illness forced her to look for a better-paying job.

The region’s United Way office, which in its history has been located in several out-of-the-way spots around Alpena, most recently in the upper floor of the APlex building, is in the process of moving into a storefront in downtown Alpena.

The new Water Street location will give more visibility to the work of the organization Gentry now leads, a move which will, Gentry hopes, help the United Way tell its story.

In the midst of a community ripe with social service agencies and charitable groups eager to do the hands-on work of helping people, the United Way — a funding agency whose mission is to provide the financial means for other people to do good work — is the connective tissue that touches them all, Gentry said.

Reducing duplication of efforts among groups to free up energy to accomplish more is one of Gentry’s goals as he heads into the new year in his new leadership role.

He praised the efforts of a recently developed homelessness council in Alpena, bringing the work of several organizations together to create a sum greater than its parts.

The United Way, Gentry said, focuses on people in the gap — those earning above the federal poverty level, therefore often ineligible for public assistance, but not making enough to support the basic needs of life.

In Alpena County, according to an every-three-years study by the United Way, a single person needs to earn $22,000 a year to pay for the basic needs of food, housing, transportation, technology, and child care.

For couples with two children, that amount is $55,000.

People making less than those minimums often have to decide between paying for food or health care, car repairs or child care, Gentry said.

The study says 44% of Alpena residents fall in that gap.

Help is available from many local groups. It’s the United Way’s mission, and Gentry’s job, to connect those groups with funding. Grants from United Way’s spring grant cycle totaled $13,000, used for projects from provisions for food pantries to books for classroom libraries.

A lengthy background in human resources and managerial positions for steel companies and banks prepared Gentry to assume an official leadership role with United Way. For years, he volunteered as in-house campaign manager when his employers partnered with a United Way fundraiser, and for a time he served as president of its board.

Now, Gentry is ready to work with the organization full-time, helping it to move forward in new directions.

“To really start seeing the needs and be in a position to help agencies meet those needs? It’s pretty rewarding,” Gentry said. “It’s a way for me to give back.”

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