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Help on the way: United Way of Central FL helping to distribute federal aid to Polk County residents

POLK COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – Millions of dollars from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act will be funneled through the United Way of Central Florida before being dispersed to people in need in Polk County.

“We’re providing the [board of county commissioners] that expertise and that knowledge and that vetting process to ensure that it’s going to the best non-profits in the community,” said Christina Criser Jackson, president & CEO of United Way of Central Florida.

Polk County commissioners received $30 million from the CARES Act and are partnering with United Way to allocate $15 million of the aid to non-profit organizations.

United Way is accepting applications from non-profit organizations to receive some of the $15 million available.

The non-profits will give the funds to people who lost income due to the COVID-19 pandemic for rent/mortgage assistance, utility assistance, food assistance, childcare and adult care assistance and emergency response.

The aid is capped at $2,000 per household.

The non-profit organizations must submit an “intent to apply” by Wednesday at 5 p.m. The deadline for submissions is Thursday at 5 p.m. Organizations can apply through this web portal.

“We know these partners in and out and we’ve been able to vet them in the past and we’ll continue to do that,” said Criser Jackson.

The contracts will be up for approval at the May 20th board of county commissioners meeting and can be made available to non-profit organizations following the United Way’s May 22nd board meeting, Criser Jackson said.

United Way has seen the booming demand firsthand. Its 211 call center, which refers callers to agencies and programs where they can get help, has seen a sharp rise in call volume.

“In some circumstances, we’ve increased our calls from roughly 300-500 calls a month to 3,500 – 4,000 calls a month and we expect that to increase with this additional funding,” said Criser Jackson.

The CEO tells 8 On Your Side the United Way drive-thru food distribution sites have seen hundreds more vehicles than initially planned.

“The need has been overwhelming,” she said. “We’re having to turn away a hundred, two hundred cars.”

This need has been magnified by an unemployment system that has been slow to provide benefits to people who lost their jobs.

Lakeland’s Arrin Oswald helped her mother-in-law organize ballroom dance competitions.

“It was just clarified maybe two or three weeks ago that there’s not gonna be any more competitions for the rest of the year,” she said.

Now she’s living in a home with her husband, teenage son and her in-laws.

“There’s definitely the decision – do we pay our cell phone bill or do we get our prescriptions this month?” she said. “You have to put certain things in the top of your list when you’re in these types of situations.”

The Oswalds, she said, could benefit from assistance like what’s being provided by the United Way and the county.

Residents can also apply directly to access aid later this month.

“The [board of county commissioners] has an additional $15 million that they are allocating through a call center. That’s a web portal that they’re launching on the 20th that they will be able to serve community members that can get access to WiFi and to a computer to apply,” said Criser Jackson.

The United Way of Central Florida already awarded $310,056 in grants from the United Community Relief Fund.

City of Lakeland residents who lost wages due to the pandemic can access rental assistance through the city’s website. All other Polk County residents can access that aid through the county.

Anyone in need of help should call 211.

By:  Staci DaSilva (WFLA)

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