Lafayette Count is a web of interconnected entities – the university, the city of Oxford and the surrounding community.
Several different nonprofit groups serve each of these, and many are held together by a common thread – United Way.
Alice Ricks has been the executive director of United Way of Lafayette County since 2013 and uses her position to meet community needs.
“We focus on the building blocks of a good life – quality education, good health, and a stable household income,” Ricks said. “We believe that if people have all three of these, they are headed towards a successful life.”
Ricks, a native of Cambridge, England, discovered her passion for improving the lives of children while working for Teach for America after graduating from Yale.
She taught kindergarten and first grade for TFA until she enrolled at Berkley to earn her master’s degree in public health and public policy. This led her to a career organizing the provision of health services to students across the state of California.
When her husband accepted a job as a professor of anthropology from the university two years ago, the family moved to Oxford, and she came to work for United Way.
The Lafayette County branch of the nonprofit, which has more than 1,800 locations worldwide, opened in 1970 and funds some of the most well-known charities in town, including the Literacy Council, American Red Cross and Family Crisis Services.
“We receive phone calls every day from people needing anything from affordable after school care for their children to someone who is homeless and looking for work,” Ricks said.
Since United Way does not provide direct services, Ricks and her team are often removed from the success stories, but they are sometimes able to see their impact.
“We got a phone call from a woman telling us how she had been giving to United Way for over 20 years, and that medical problems had kept her from being able to make ends for her family,” Ricks said. “She told us of all the ways that a variety of United Way partners had helped her, and that she was going back to work next week.”
Ricks spends most of her time coordinating fundraising and is always looking for help with donations.
“We’re not sitting on a huge endowment that is collecting interest,” she said. “We raise the funds, and then we spend them, give out grants, run coalitions and keep the lights on.”
United Way is always looking for volunteers to connect with their partners to serve in several unique projects. They also try to recruit college-aged volunteers, whom many of their partners rely on heavily for their workforce.
Ricks said she is most proud of the diversity of the volunteers and projects the nonprofit supports.
“We have people who represent the many different parts of our community, and I think that’s good because it helps us find better and more creative solutions to problems that we’re facing,” Ricks said.
Ricks believes the problems in Lafayette County are quite different from other places she has worked.
“There are many people here that don’t realize how much poverty there is,” she said. “There are more students coming to Ole Miss. There are tons of great restaurants, shops, and parks – all things that you want in a community for your kids. But there are also a whole lot of people who aren’t getting to take advantage of them.”
She said many people aren’t able to to find as much work as they need to support their family, and housing is becoming increasingly expensive. And even though the school districts are very successful, she said there are still big achievement gaps between children of different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Ricks said she first saw this need in students she taught in New Haven, Atlanta and Chicago, whom she keeps photos of in her office.
“I know it’s not the same place, but there are other families here in Oxford facing similar struggles,” she said. “They have such a commitment to their kids, and high aspirations for them but they don’t always have the many things it takes to get onto the path that they want to be on.”
Her own children, ages 3 and 8 months, help her keep things in perspective and inspire her to better the community.
“I want to live somewhere where there are people watching out for other people, and whether it’s my kids or someone else’s kids, everyone deserves that,” she said.
Sylvia Stewart, a University of Mississippi graduate, is the current leader of North Mississippi Volunteers in Service to America. She also works to inform and recruit for United Way.
“I want to let student know that they have the ability to make a lasting change in the world,” Stewart said.
Stewart has worked with Ricks on several projects, such as the United Way’s two coalitions, Lafayette County-Oxford-University Reads and Excel by Five.
“Alice not only taught me how much planning goes into creating something that makes a difference, but also that I personally have it in me to do that work and manage the pressures of leadership,” Stewart said.
She said both coalitions, which unite local nonprofits to work on specific early education issues, have thrived under Ricks’ tenure.