For Hari Sastry, senior vice chancellor and chief financial officer, the appeal of taking the lead as chair of the University’s United Way Campaign was rooted in childhood experiences. The American son of Indian immigrants, Sastry had visited his parents’ home country five times before the age of 12.
“One of the things I was exposed to at a very young age was seeing examples of extreme poverty, especially in rural areas,” recalled Sastry. “My father brought water to his village, which had previously not had running water, and he was able to manage feeding people who just couldn’t afford food.”
Those experiences stuck with Sastry, who has over the years continued to support volunteerism in the communities in which he’s lived. He sees the pandemic as having refocused many people toward service, as well as demonstrated the importance of the critical resources provided by organizations like the United Way.
“On a regular basis, and in Pittsburgh specifically, there are things like the porch pantry that we’re doing in the community that’s over and above what we had done before, because people know this is a different atmosphere than we’ve ever seen before,” he said.
At the United Way specifically, many of the organization’s priorities and staffing have shifted to critical resources like its 2-1-1 helpline. “In talking to Bobbi Watt Geer (president and CEO of the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania), one of the things she said is that one line has become all COVID-related calls. It’s unbelievable.”
As a resource to vulnerable populations, the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania has become critical for those seeking help during the pandemic. In addition to the helpline, they have set up support via text and websites for people to connect with resource navigators that can help them locate essential services in their area.
Sastry also mentioned the social justice issues raised over the past year as the third element of a triple crisis the nation is facing and the United Way is working to address. “We have a group here that’s working to consider and implement tangible efforts we can make with regard to equity and race relations,” he said.
Creative ways to get involved
The organization is working to secure new gifts and keep a steady stream of funding, but Sastry acknowledged the challenge this unprecedented year has brought.
“We know that everyone’s financial situation has been affected,” said Sastry. “But we have also seen people stepping up as they can. And I think people are thinking about how to change how they are giving or what they can do over a longer period of time.”
In terms of this year’s campaign, that includes encouraging people to become involved in creative ways, including offering new electronic options to support giving and virtual volunteerism like help desk support for remote learners.
“It’s really critical to get involved, and the University community has always demonstrated its commitment to the resources and community engagement the United Way supports,” said Sastry. “This year, we want to get creative on what evens people can participate in. We know that’s more than asking for a dollar to wear jeans, especially when jeans are almost dressing up at this point. But we are asking people to give what they can online, and supporting them in taking time to volunteer. It all makes such a difference, and that’s never been more clear than this year.”
How to donate
The United Way Campaign website has information about how you can donate to support the Pitt campaign.
Options include payroll deduction, credit card, check or even by mail.
Donors can contribute to the United Way Impact Fund, through which the United Way targets funds to support the local agencies that serve populations facing the most critical current needs, or donors can instead choose from hundreds of local and regional organizations to direct their contributions toward.