Member Spotlight: United Way of Southwest Michigan

Written by Heather Cole, Be Healthy Berrien Coordinator


“It is unreasonable to expect that people will change their behavior easily when so many forces in the social, cultural, and physical environment conspire against such change.” -Smedley & Syme


Changing the health of a population is a task that cannot be accomplished by one organization working alone.  In 2010, United Way of Southwest Michigan (UWSM) responded to a call to action by community health leaders to address the rising obesity problem in Berrien County.  In response, UWSM helped form Be Healthy Berrien and now acts as the backbone support agency for the initiative.


Be Healthy Berrien is a county-wide partnership of Berrien County Health Department, Lakeland Health, Southwest Michigan Planning Commission, United Way of Southwest Michigan, Benton Harbor-St. Joseph YMCA, and Niles-Buchanan YMCA. These partners are working together to reduce obesity through policy, systems, and environmental change.  Their efforts, as opposed to those focused on the individual, work by changing the forces in the social, cultural, and physical environment to create a new system in which healthy choices are easier for all people.    The Be Healthy Berrien partners have set a bold long-term goal of reducing adult obesity by 10% by the year 2020.


By using a collective impact model to guide these efforts, each organization is committing to the common agenda created to solve the problem.  The collective impact model hinges on the idea that large-scale social change comes from better cross-sector coordination rather than from isolated interventions of individual organizations.


One aim of Be Healthy Berrien is to act as a convening organization to bring detached groups, individuals, and organizations together in order to maximize resources and opportunities for change. This is done through relationship building and resource-mapping efforts by the Be Healthy Berrien partners.


Recently, Be Healthy Berrien was able to connect the Berrien County Parks Commission with a local running/walking club to create an intergenerational walking program that highlights walking opportunities in local parks.  Through this project, $1,600 in grant funding came into the community and a promotional video highlighting walking in our parks was created at no cost to our local partners. Because of this work, future funding opportunities may now be leveraged by these community partners.


“The more we can connect with people and bring them on board to the agenda, the more change we’ll see” said Heather Cole, Coordinator of the Be Healthy Berrien initiative.  “Connections lead to even more connections, and soon you have a whole community acting towards one mission.  That’s really powerful!”


Be Healthy Berrien is a model for other initiatives aiming to make lasting change. UWSM hopes to grow its collective impact work in other areas, including early childhood education, college readiness and through its funded partners.  

About United Way- United Way improves lives. We improve lives by focusing on the building blocks of a good life; Education, Income, Health and Basic Needs. Because we all win when a child succeeds in school, when families are financially stable, when people are healthy and have all their basic needs met. United Way of Southwest Michigan tackles the source, not just the symptoms, of our community’s core challenges. That’s how we go beyond short-term charity for a few to long-lasting solutions that lift up the whole community.


United Way of Southwest Michigan serves Berrien County.