United Way’s Check & Connect Program: Investing In the Future

Written By: Erica Brown

FEATGainesville has a highly educated workforce, but with around twenty percent of Alachua County high school students leaving school before graduation, it also has one of the highest dropout rates.

United Way and the Alachua County Public Schools are working to bridge that gap by intercepting at-risk students to ensure that they complete and continue their education.

The Check & Connect Program helps students with repeat occurrences of absenteeism or behavioral issues and report cards with “D” and “F” grades as well as students with no hope of graduating or of obtaining more than a “dead-end” job. The program was established in 2012, when United Way of North Central Florida became the only United Way in the country to receive a two-year $300,000 grant from AT&T.

The grant, which will end in June 2014, has provided salaries, benefits and supplies for the program and its four full-time staff positions at Gainesville High School, Eastside High School and Hawthorne Middle/High School.

These staff members invest full-time in the 70-plus students in the program. They ensure that students show up to school, help find solutions for behavioral problems and learning disabilities and provide constant encouragement for children who have been forgotten by the school system. They also work directly with parents to engage them in their children’s success.

“It changes their lives from a pattern of defeat to a pattern of ability,” President and CEO of United Way of North Central Florida Debbie Mason said. “Most of these kids see school as something to be dreaded, not the land of opportunity. We change those thoughts and give them the skills and support needed to succeed.”

No other program has the same partnership and commitment to see kids through, Mason said. In its first class of students, Check & Connect saw 97 percent promoted to the next grade on time.

Norinda Yancey, Check & Connect program coordinator, said Check & Connect teaches students new problem-solving strategies and helps them change negative behaviors. One project included helping students research jobs and create vision boards. For many of the targeted kids, these activities help them see beyond their neighborhood and the people directly around them.

One member of the program, Lazoriah McDonald, said the Check & Connect program changed her dreams for the future.

“I planned to have a regular job, like working at McDonalds,” she said. “But now, I have changed my thoughts and habits. I now have goals. I want to go to college, and I want to help my mother.”

McDonald plans to duel-enroll at Santa Fe College in the fall and pursue a career in the medical field.


 “United Way’s Check & Connect Program has been one of our most effective weapons in breaking the cycle of educational failure and generational poverty. This program must continue.” – Hershel Lyons, interim superintendent, Alachua County Public Schools.


Check & Connect leaves a lasting impact in the community.

“This is the one program that is succeeding with a huge number of kids,” Mason said. “It’s changing generational patterns because it impresses younger siblings. It’s exponential.”

However, this program cannot continue without community support. It’s up to the community to invest in its own economic future.

United Way is asking for the community’s help to raise the $150,000 to keep the Check & Connect program running.

Without support, the 70-plus students will lose their mentors and the incoming freshman class of 100 kids will not be accepted. Supporting the program can make the difference in 100 kids walking at graduation four years down the road.

“I believe in our community,” Mason said. “People say education is the number one thing they care about. Well, this is the best program with proven success to help education.”

People interested in assisting United Way can reach Debbie Mason at 352-333-0845 or donate online at

Leave a Comment