Wickett's retirement is the end of an era for the United Way of Southern Cameron County
Mar. 4—The decision to retire after nearly three decades leading the United Way of Southern Cameron County wasn't an easy one, but it was the right one.
So says Traci Wickett, whose last day as president and CEO was Feb. 28 — 27 years to the day after joining the nonprofit, founded in 1967 as the United Fund of Brownsville by Ruben Edelstein, Gladys Porter and other city luminaries.
Wickett, born in Ohio, raised in Grand Prairie and a resident of Brownsville for the past 40 years, sat down with The Brownsville Herald recently to talk about her tenure, UWSCC's successes and challenges, and the future.
Her journey with United Way was prompted by a tragedy, the death of her father, which caused Wickett to reconsider where she was going in life, she said. Wickett was vice president and technology manager for the bank holding company Mercantile Bank at the time.
"I was working a lot but not feeling like I was bringing value to my community," Wickett said. "I was bringing value to shareholders of the bank."
United Way, meanwhile, had been in her blood since childhood, the front door of her parents' house always displaying an "I Gave at the Office" United Way sticker. Wickett heard UWSCC was in the market for a new chief and had some messy technology problems of its own — right up her alley.
"There had been some loss of data without backups," she recalled. "Things needed to be recovered and rebuilt, and systems had to be put in place to make sure that it wasn't going to happen again. It was perfect timing for me to take on a challenge like that."
Wickett thought she might give it two years and then move on to the next phase of her career, though United Way had other plans.
"There was no way to leave," she said. "It was such an amazing thing to be able to come to work every day and have it be about mission, have it be about actually making tangible results in our community. Once you're in it's tough to leave."
Among UWSCC's accomplishments Wickett is proudest of is its initiatives in early childhood education, which is close to her heart. Advances in brain imaging technology in the late 1990s clearly showed that babies' brains needed adequate stimulation to develop properly, and that it was critical this took place before age 5, she said.
"Early childhood education became a huge passion," Wickett said. "We got our first grant ever for this organization around the year 2000 for an initiative called Success By 6, which was aimed at helping families implement all these strategies that they could do as parents to help brain development in their children and ensure school readiness. That was a biggie."
Long term, the initiative has led not only to better school readiness among kids but also welcome policy changes at the state and federal levels, she said.
"Getting the word out about this and how important it is has really led to more pre-K opportunities for kids," Wickett said.
She also pointed to the success of UWSCC's Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program in helping raise families out of poverty, explaining that it grew out of the first community needs assessment meeting UWSCC hosted once Wickett was onboard. The purpose was to "ask people what really mattered to them and what they wanted us to work on," she said.
"Fight poverty" was the consensus, though just how to go about it was less clear, Wickett said. Week after week UWSCC staff met to discuss how to "make a measurable difference," she said. One day the phone rang. It was the IRS — but they weren't in trouble. The feds just wanted a meeting.
"They wanted to let us know that in our region we had an excruciatingly low number of people claiming the Earned Income Tax Credits," Wickett said.
"They explained to us that the (EITC) is the single most effective anti-poverty tool that the federal government has in its arsenal. And here we are in one of the poorest counties in the United States, and we have this abysmally low rate of people claiming the EITC, which raises more people from below the poverty line ... than any other initiative."
The IRS suggested UWSCC expand VITA to get more families claiming the credit, and it was exactly the poverty-fighting tool UWSCC had been looking for, Wickett said.
"The light went on," she said. "We had our marching orders: This is the answer. This is the first thing that we need do to. Here we are all these years later, and it grows and grows and brings millions back into people's pockets."
Yet another accomplishment was UWSCC's successful effort to help convince the city of Brownsville to pass an anti-predatory-lending ordinance, which happened in 2014. Other communities across Texas have adopted similar ordinances, though only one other city in the Rio Grande Valley (Pharr) has followed suit, Wickett said.
"We pushed for it super hard," she said. "It took some convincing because these are businesses in our community, but when you can produce data showing how much wealth those businesses are stripping out of our community — it's like here we are doing all this work to bring the wealth in, and these guys are just sucking it out with their predatory practices. I would like to see every community in the Valley adopt it and get these guys out of here."
There are other challenges, notably the effect of the pandemic on UWSCC's all-important fundraising campaigns. Wickett said it's been "really rough," since most of the organization's income comes from workplace campaigns, where volunteers talk about United Way's mission and impact and employees have the opportunity to sign up to donate through payroll deductions.
Because of COVID-19, zero in-person workplace campaigns took place for two years, she said.
"We tried doing virtual campaigns, which had minimal success," Wickett said. "People burned out on virtual meetings very quickly, and the last thing they wanted after working virtually was to hear a United Way presentation virtually. It's very difficult to build the excitement about this when you're doing it over Zoom.
"So now we're rebuilding again. We lost so much ground during the pandemic and now we're starting to climb back up. It's really important that we have workplace giving because it's so effective and so painless."
Workplace giving is vital because it enables UWSCC to leverage bigger donations from foundations and corporations, she said. The vast majority of dollars raised go to support community nonprofits that help improve education, health and financial stability within the service area, though UWSCC also supports quick-response aid in emergency situations, such as the large-scale food distribution to needy families implemented during the pandemic and again underway as families struggle with higher grocery bills.
Wickett's successor to the top job is Wendy De Leon, formerly UWSCC's development and communication director. An immediate priority will be rebuilding the workplace campaign, where donations are still down about half of pre-pandemic levels.
It won't be easy, but Wickett is confident De Leon can handle it, and predicted the organization won't miss a beat under its new chief.
De Leon started at UWSCC nearly 10 years ago as the administrative assistant, when she had just completed a business bachelor's degree, and is now finishing up her MBA.
"She has grown not just in her academic career but she's grown through the positions in this organization," Wickett said. "She was dynamo from the day she stepped in the door, and I saw a spark in her. I was always interested in seeing what would happen if we fanned that into a flame. She rose to every challenge, took every opportunity for training. She always was eager for the next opportunity to grow and learn."
Wickett said she feels honored to see De Leon go from administrative assistant to CEO, and that knowing UWSCC would land in the right hands made her own decision to retire an easier one.
As for Wickett's post-retirement plans, seeing after her own health is top of the list. Health challenges were a factor in to her decision to retire.
"We all know that health issues can make you perform at less than 100%," she said. "This job requires and deserves 100% every single day. I'm going to now prioritize my health and get out of the way and let a very talented, young woman step up and get us to the next level."
Wickett said she's also looking forward to traveling, organizing her pantry and improving her Spanish. She continues to serve on the Brownsville Community Improvement Corporation board and aims to stay engaged with such opportunities as long as she's able to contribute value, Wickett said.
She also intends to keep giving to United Way, and encouraged others to as well.
"You can join thousands of other donors with whatever size you gift, but your gift will become significant by virtue of it joining thousands of other gifts to make real, long-lasting change," Wickett said. "That's why I've stayed at United Way for 27 years and that's why I will continue to be a donor to United Way in retirement, because I want to continue to make a difference and I know I can't do it on my own.
"United is the only way that we move forward, and I'm going to keep holding hands with all the other people in the community who believe that, and move our community forward."
Featured Local Savings
Featured Local Savings