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Choosing a career to change lives

“Change is the essence of life. You must be willing to surrender what you are for what you could become.”

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Every Monday morning, Shannon Reed writes a quote on the dry erase board in his office. The thought-provoking and often inspiring message greets the eyes of all who pass. More importantly, however, Reed’s ‘quote of the week’ reflects his life goals and journey.

A recent quote evokes thoughts of change. It was his need for change that led Reed to the Upper Iowa University Milwaukee Center back in the early 2000s. The need to grow, the need to be educated and the need to show his children how important education is – all of these goals brought about many transformations, the latest of which has sparked positive changes not only in his life, but in the lives of the people who benefit from the service of United Way of Greater Milwaukee.

A month after graduating high school, Reed went to work for Bank One (which later became JP Morgan Chase & Co.) starting out as a customer service representative in the insurance division. Several years and a promotion later, Reed recognized the need for a degree to advance further in his career. He chose Upper Iowa University because of its accelerated program. Balancing work, family and school, Reed forged ahead to get his degree.

“Being an African-American male in times like these, you have to have a career and be educated,” he said. “I wanted to be able to tell my children that I did it – it was harder for me because I had a family, but there will never be an excuse that they can’t do it.”

After nine years at JP Morgan Chase & Co., Reed was tapped for a position at Social Development Commission as an internal auditor, but he had a burning desire to be in a career where he could help change lives. While he considered his options, a former colleague from an organization whom he use to work with approached Reed and urged him to take advantage of an opportunity at United Way. Working with the organization had been a long-time goal, and he jumped at the tremendous opportunity.

As the income portfolio manager for United Way of Greater Milwaukee, Reed oversees 28 agencies that span the issues of adult education, emergency food and shelter, financial literacy, legal aid, correctional services and veterans issues. When member agencies come to Reed to ask for more financial assistance, he asks them, “What can we do to help you do more with what you already have – efficiently and effectively?”

It is the topic of veterans’ issues that Reed is most concerned with right now.

“When you have an individual that has served his country and comes back and is trying to get acclimated back to civilian life and there aren’t any resources for this individual, that is unconsciable,” he said. “I had a meeting with a young veteran, and he said to me, ‘Shannon, please explain to me why is it that I managed millions of dollars of artillery and 60 people in the field for the United States government, and my technology skills are exemplary, but I come back home and I can’t get a job at a Pick ‘N Save. Explain that to me.’”

Reed is currently convening agencies associated with United Way that specialize in veterans issues. He hopes that they can develop a strategic, collective approach to tackling the barriers veterans face including lack of education, lack of a skillset to obtain a civilian job, and mental health and wellness.

“There isn’t a strategic support system for veterans; area agencies have to collaborate and share resources to make it happen” he added. “Sometimes when you focus on one thing, you can lose sight of everything else.”

Another hot button issue for United Way is closing the skillset gap in the Greater Milwaukee population. Through Reed, United Way is collaborating with its adult education agencies and their clients regarding changes to the General Educational Development (GED) program. Come December, the company that owns GED will increase its tuition and move all testing to online only.

“When you have people who can’t afford it right now, and then the cost is going to double come December – it makes it even harder for people to earn a GED,” said Reed. “We have a skillset gap, and these individuals who are trying to get jobs will need to have GED or they will not be able to provide for themselves or their families.”

During a strategic planning session in April, members of six agencies met with Reed in a brainstorming session on how they can best help their clients. With the length of current waiting lists in the Greater Milwaukee area, people know that obtaining their GED could have a tremendous positive impact on their lives. But the path to success is further blocked by childcare issues, as well as health care and transportation. The agencies want to move some clients to a fast track to get all five tests completed by December, but they are also mindful of the fact that they do not want to create an atmosphere of hopelessness for those who can’t move that quickly and will be affected by the changes to the GED requirements.

In addition, Reed has just been given the task of  convening up to 20  agencies for a new project called “Continuum of Care,” to develop strategies in a 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness.

It may seem a daunting task, but Reed feels up to the challenge. “I love my job, I really do,” he added. “I love what I do because I really get to see the effects of what’s happening in the community.”

This winter, United Way gave the Cathedral Center, an agency that provides emergency shelter and case management services for individual women and families who are homeless, a $50,000 grant to increase its capacity to serve more people. The Center also increased its staffing and its hours to accommodate more clients during the record-breaking cold winter.

This accomplishment makes Reed smile. “That’s why we’re here!” he exclaimed.

Reed looks forward to reports from the organizations served by United Way. Each organization includes personal success stories from clients served in their reports. “We want to ensure that the dollars we’re allocating to these organizations is impacting the lives of individuals,” Reed added.

He enjoys traveling to the various agencies to listen to individuals who have benefited from the resources available through United Way.

Reed is a 2005 graduate of the Upper Iowa University Milwaukee Center with a degree in management information systems and minor in business. He also holds a Master’s degree in Business Management.

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