Partners for a brighter future: United Way helps families, including South Amboy single mom of twin girls


“I’ve been really blessed because people have helped me,” said the South Amboy single mother of twin 4-year-old girls. “I always knew in my heart I was going to achieve my goals, but there were times when I felt there was so much holding me back.

“Thanks to the United Way, my life is now back on track. I’m attending college and hoping to become a nurse.”

The Milltown-based United Way of Central Jersey is a nonprofit organization that provides health, educational and financial assistance to families in Middlesex County and Franklin Township. The group works as an advocate for the less fortunate and as a conduit linking volunteers with opportunities. The agency also serves as a go-between for smaller nonprofits, working with them to obtain federal and state funding.

With the help of the United Way of Central Jersey, Desiree Stankowitz of South Amboy, shown with twin daughters Catalina (left) and Clarissa, is attending college with the goal of becoming a nurse. (STAFF PHOTOS: JOE McLAUGHLIN) 

Although its focus has changed over the years, the organization’s core mission remains unchanged.

“In 2003, United Way chief financial officers around the country were challenged to put a stake in the ground that would really make a difference and change the lives of people who lived and worked in community,” said Gloria Aftanski, president and chief professional officer of United Way of Central Jersey.

“Up to that point, we’d been funding a lot of different programs,” said Jean Leal, director of administration. “It wasn’t that we weren’t doing good, but it wasn’t really focused. The idea was that if we had a specific focus, these precious donated dollars we are stewards of could be stretched further by having a specific mission and being able to measure what we do.”

The organization decided that children and families would be the main focus, she said. One such program is the Nurse-Family Partnership, in which Stankowitz is involved.

The free program provides regular nurse visits to the home of low-income, first-time mothers until the child reaches 2 years old.

“The nurse came to the house and talked about nutrition and exercise and how to spot early signs of trouble,” Stankowitz said. “She even caught that I had pre-eclampsia. She taught me how to take care of my preemie babies and how to be the best mom of twins that I could be. She gave me advice.

“She even noticed the girls’ heads were slightly misshaped, something I never noticed, and when I called it to the doctor’s attention, they were given helmets to wear, and now they are fine.”

After the family graduated from the Nurse-Family Partnership, they enrolled in United Way’s Parent Child Home Program, which provides biweekly visits to the home to promote school readiness and success.

“Sara Spatz came to my house and brought either a book or a toy,” Stankowitz said. “She showed me how they can be used as teaching tools. She taught the girls how to play with toys and made learning fun for all of us. Because of this, the girls love learning, and they learned really early.”

But United Way’s support didn’t end there.

“Every time I hit a wall, they (United Way) were there to help,” Desiree Stankowitz says. “The staff at the United Way and (Middlesex County College) have been an inspiration to me.”

When Stankowitz decided to return to school to become a nurse, United Way again came to her aid.

“When the president of the United Way heard, she was so excited, and she called the president of Middlesex County College,” Stankowitz said.

With the help of the college president, Joann La Perla-Morales, who is a United Way board member, and her staff, Stankowitz enrolled in the school, where her children attend day care.

“I had been trying to get here for awhile, but they made it so much easier for me,” Stankowitz said. “Every time I hit a wall, they were there to help. The staff at the United Way and the college have been an inspiration to me.

“I’ve been blessed by the people that have helped me, and now I want to be that person too. There is nothing better than the feeling of not only being a mother but being able to help others.”

Additional information about United Way of Central Jersey is available by calling 732-247-3727 or at

Susan Loyer: