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Making a Change

From developer to architect of change in only one year


He's the father of three. He's a former board member of the Treasure Valley YMCA, Boise Parks and Rec. Commission, Urban Land Institute, Boise Chamber of Commerce and Boise School District. He's a former football coach. He's one of the region's best known developers, who's helped create some of Idaho's most recognized communities including Bown Crossing. And on Thursday, Aug. 26, Derick O'Neill will be flipping pancakes at the 2010 flapjack feed as president and CEO of the United Way of the Treasure Valley.

You don't have a chair behind your desk.

I don't. That's an exercise ball back there. It helps my back and my posture. I'm rarely in my office, but when I'm here, it helps me sit up straight.

Your office is filled with photographs.

You bet. There's my wife Kathy, 15-year-old daughter, 12-year-old son and 7-year-old son.

And a lot of pictures with your dad and granddad.

My dad's a great guy. He's been a mentor, a friend and a business partner. And I'm named after my grandfather. He came from a family with very little means. But he went to college, played professional football for the New York Giants and was a World War II vet. We're very fortunate that he spent his final years here in Boise with his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Does the United Way of the Treasure Valley have a goal this year?

Last year, through the great support of this community, we were able to distribute $1.6 million to local nonprofits. But we had requests that were much greater than that amount. This year, we want to close that gap. My stretch goal is to fund all of it. We may not be able to do that, but it's worth trying.

What will the total of the requests be?

The nonprofits won't formally request until the end of September and into October, but based on our conversations, it's definitely going to be greater this year. It's going to be over $3 million.

Might there be a change in who gets funding?

It's typically been perceived that once you're a United Way partner, you're always a United Way partner. Conversely, if you're not a United Way partner, it's very difficult to become one. I hope this year will be different. I would really like us to be funding issues rather than nonprofits.

Will that require more collaboration?

Absolutely. It would mean many partners coming together so that the dollars go a lot further.

Give us an idea of how your message might be different this year.

We've done a great job of showcasing stories of people whose lives have been impacted by United Way. I think that's great, but not everybody can identify with that. This year, we're really going to focus on prevention. And we're going to focus on how much it costs to incarcerate someone versus the cost to educate a 4-year-old. It's all about getting ahead of the curve.

Talk to us about something called "life on the edge."

The whole reason I'm here today is because of life on the edge. A year ago, my wife asked me to take my son to a poverty simulation. She told me that for four hours, participants are put into a simulation where they experience a life in poverty. I said, "I'm not really interested." She said, "You better be interested." So I listened to my wife. We walked into a room with 100 other people. They gave me and my son a name tag, and gave me a daughter who was 19 years old (which I don't have) and they gave us (virtually) $300. I had to check in with a job supervisor to become a laborer. I didn't have a car, but I had to get myself to work. My daughter desperately wanted to go to college, but because I had to leave to go to work and my son had to get to school and daycare, she could only take a couple of classes. And we "lived" through that process. It turns out my son was much more savvy than I was. He helped navigate many of the obstacles. It was a very powerful moment for me. Then, they gave me a postcard, asked me to write a message on it and mail it to myself. A couple of months later, I received the postcard that had my words on it: Make a change. The very next day I got a phone call from someone asking me to consider being the CEO of the United Way.

It sounds like your wife is a motivator.

She is the motivator. We went to high school together, and we've been best buddies most of our lives. She's always been one to say, "Take a risk. I'll support you. The family will support you. Go make a difference."