Jan. 29—A single mom who raised seven children while working as a nursing assistant, Jodie Cross knows what it’s like to live on a tight budget. She also knows what it’s like to need a little help.
Years before she came on as executive director of the Northwest Montana United Way she found herself accessing rental and education assistance from the nonprofit. Later she began volunteering on the organization’s board and then in April 2023 took on the leadership role.
“At one point, I was homeless living in a camper with seven kids,” she said. “If I can do it anyone can and we want to see how United Way can help.”
She equates the work of United Way as helping those who have hit a hard spot in life.
“When you’re talking with someone and they say they are tired of fighting every month we want to help them,” she said. “We want to make people stronger so their life is stabilized so we don’t have to worry about their life going upside down and then we have families and kids living on the streets.”
Moving to Eureka from California right after high school, Cross worked at a bar but realized she wanted to help people so got her certified nursing assistant license. Eventually, she moved to Kalispell, landing a job at the Brendan House and would spend 37 years working in home health care nursing.
“I liked feeling like I was making a difference in somebody’s life,” she said.
Today her youngest child just moved out of the house and she has 16 grandchildren — which makes for a full house during holidays.
Changing careers in 2018, Cross began working as a real estate agent. When United Way was looking for a board member with expertise in real estate she volunteered. Eventually, she stepped down from serving as president of the board to take on the executive director position.
Though she admits to putting in extra hours, she officially works part-time for United Way which allows her to continue selling real estate for Keller Williams Realty Northwest Montana and she says it ensures that “any money raised goes back into the community.”
Cross describes the United Way as a community hub.
“Our motto is protecting the community to build a brighter tomorrow,” she said. “Our focus is on health, education and financial stability. Our goal is to connect people to resources and if we can’t then we fill in the needs where we can. There are other nonprofits and they do things fabulously so we want to make sure we’re connecting people with that.”
United Way is an international network of over 1,800 local nonprofit fundraising affiliates. It provides base funding for a wide range of agencies that are a community safety net for those struggling to make ends meet.
The United Way runs a few programs itself. It has the Career Closet where individuals can access donated clothing for job interviews. It operates the 211 phone network for the northwestern region of the state that connects callers seeking help securing basic needs like shelter, food, health care, employment, transportation and support groups.
A source of pride for Cross, the United Way partnered with Coats for Kids last fall for its Back to School Bash which works to put school supplies, winter coats and shoes in the hands of students who need it. The organization is already preparing for next year’s event.
“We were able to serve 1,700 kids between the two of us,” she said. “We were able to put our two databases together to reach as many people as possible. We handed out 750 pairs of tennis shoes, paper, pens and notebooks. And of course, coats, boots and hats.”
Cross shows pictures taken on the day in August showing a line of people snaking through the length of the Gateway Community Center. The event also included food and games.
“We want kids to be ready for school and have everything they need,” Cross said. “Coming from a humble background and watching the parents who are so relieved because they’re getting what they need and the kids are excited because they’re getting brand new coats and backpacks. We want to make sure we do our best to serve them.”
Though based in Kalispell, Northwest Montana United Way — in addition to the Flathead — covers Lincoln, Lake, Glacier and Sanders counties. Back to School bashes were held in Lincoln County last fall and school supplies were delivered to Plains, but Cross would like to see United Way hosting events in every county.
“I want to see our services expand,” she said. “There’s counties out there that don’t have resources and I would love a way to make that happen.”
She highlights Point in Time data that shows Flathead County has a poverty level of 12.5% which works out to 14,000 people and about 206 homeless families living here. She says her dream would be to end that completely because nobody should have to go without the basics.
Cross shares her favorite quote to describe her work — the key to happiness is having dreams; the key to success is making them come true.
“I want people to realize that it doesn’t matter how small the dream is, if you have one then let’s make it happen,” she said. “And if it requires coming into United Way to help kickstart it; then let’s do it.”
Features Editor Heidi Desch may be reached at 758-4421 or email@example.com.