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Poverty | Driving The Dream ™

People who are making less than the Federal government’s official poverty threshold—which for a family of four is $24,600—are considered to be living in poverty.

In the Memphis Statistical Metropolitan Area (Memphis MSA), which includes parts of Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi, the overall poverty is 17.1%, child poverty is 27.1%. From people working at or below minimum wage to senior citizens living on a fixed income, thousands in inner-city and rural communities are all suffering from the brunt of poverty.

United Way of the Mid-South’s mission is to improve the quality of life for Mid-Southerners by mobilizing and aligning community resources to address poverty. 
  • People in Shelby County, TN live in poverty 16.8% 16.8%
  • Children 18 or under in Shelby County, TN live in poverty 25.9% 25.9%
  • Children 18 or under in AR, MS, TN metro area live in poverty 23.7% 23.7%
  • People in the city of Memphis live in poverty 21.7% 21.7%
  • Children 18 or under in Memphis, TN live in poverty 35% 35%
  • People in AR, MS, and TN metro areas live in poverty 15.4% 15.4%

* percentages are rounded to the nearest whole number

The US average for people living in poverty is 12.3%. The 2020 Update of the Memphis Poverty Fact Sheet, Produced Annually by Dr. Elena Delavega of the School of Social Work at the University of Memphis. Data from the 2019 American Community Survey released in September 2020.

When talking about poverty, there’s often a cloud of despair and hopelessness. Faces of Poverty was birthed out of a need to humanize poverty as well as instill faith, desire, and resiliency. Juxtaposed to their past, these faces showcase the shining light United Way seeks to add to the conversation about poverty: the end of the narrative does not have to be bleak and dark. If others have lived it, then more can see it and achieve the life of their dreams. We hope these faces will serve as motivation for people, communities and service providers to continue the tenacious work in hopes of yielding great reward: Faces Out of Poverty



“I want to be able to educate my family, friends and everyone about poverty.”

Deangelo was in significant crisis–he had no housing, wasn’t working, rarely ate well, and lacked the life skills to access the resources he needed to move out of poverty. He was referred to Driving The Dream (DTD) Care Coordination at Catholic Charities, one of United Way’s six Driving The Dream “Hub” agencies. Deangelo became a DTD participant, and the Care Coordinator worked with him to determine his next steps.

Deangelo’s initial goal was simply to find a safe place to sleep. But through a commitment to Care Coordination, he was referred to a six-month, intensive, holistic job placement program with the goal of a better life for participants. In addition to completing the six-month intensive program, Deangelo obtained stable housing, full-time employment, and is earning a livable wage.

“I want to enroll at Southwest Tennessee Community College and pursue a degree in social economics because I want to be able to educate my family, friends and everyone about poverty.” 

He is no longer in crisis, can now pay his rent, and is on his way to achieving his dreams. 


“Driving The Dream has opened more doors than I ever thought possible.”


“I didn’t have the luxuries then that I have now.”

Charles Everett, 55, was 9-years-old when his family moved from Mississippi to Tennessee. His parents were sharecroppers, instilling in their children the value of hard work and humility.

Charles didn’t know he was poor. All he knew was his family did not have much money.

“I make sure I’m grounded by that experience of growing up in poverty. I take the time to visit the area where we lived. Our old house is gone, but there are still people and families living in those impoverished conditions. I am a better volunteer because of my upbringing.”

Charles went on to graduate from Westwood High School and Southwest Tennessee Community College (then Shelby State Community College) where he studied finance. HE soon attended and graduated from The University of Memphis where he studied business management. Today, he works as a Technical Principal with FedEx TechConnect Global Strategic Planning and Analysis.

Charles has served as a volunteer with different organizations across the Mid-South for 25 years. During a Leadership Memphis session, he was introduced to United Way of the Mid-South through a presentation given by a United Way representative. It was United Way’s commitment to supporting people in poverty through partner agencies that hooked him.

“I thought this would be the opportunity to use the budgeting and finance experience that I have. I soon learned it entailed much more than that. I am giving these agencies the support they need to serve the people in our communities who need their support. I am making a change.”

Charles serves as a United Way allocations agency certification committee volunteer, and his heart strings are pulled any time he visits partner agencies to witness the work they do with, and for, their clients. Site visits give volunteers the chance to see the programs that allocation decisions will impact.

“Visiting the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Memphis was probably my most rewarding experience. The staff and facilitators do a good job with connecting and relating to those young people, from education services to counseling and recreation. I believe our youth are our future, and if we can impact them we can change this community and the world.”

When Charles sees these youth, he is always reminded of his humble beginnings. His upbringing drives his ‘why,’ his reason for volunteering.

“It’s important not to belittle people because of their situations. Give more time to mentor and groom the youth, and support and show compassion to those who are older. Make them feel they have a place in this world.”

The work Charles Everett does for United Way has made him a bolder community advocate for people living in poverty, supporting his courage, strength, and insight to address the popular misconceptions that people living in poverty are lazy and make poor choices.

“I’m hoping people become more sympathetic to people living in poverty. Put yourself in their shoes. Nobody chooses to live in these conditions, and nobody wants to stay. No one would ever dream of living in poverty.”


“We did not speak English nor did we have housing.”
In March 2000, Ellen MMuñoz started a new chapter in her life by coming to the United State as a young teenager, “which was not only a new country but also a different culture and language.”

Ellen Muñoz, 30, is a Sr. Solutions Specialist at FedEx and looks forward to volunteering with United Way of the Mid-South every year.

Ellen’s father, a minister, was offered a position in Chicago through their religious affiliation. He was hired to supplement the need for Spanish-speaking pastors for their church. The family was living in the Dominican Republic for nine years when they left the world they knew for an unfamiliar land.

Relocation expenses did not come with the new job so Ellen’s family lived with a church member for a few weeks. Soon, her father discovered Casa Central in Chicago, a Hispanic social services agency and a United Way agency.

“I just thought we were surrounded by really good people who wanted to help us. I can personally testify to the great value and benefits that organizations supported by United Way bring to the community.”

Today, Ellen is a Senior Solutions Specialist at FedEx. She is part of the Sales Technology team, focusing on supporting Sales organizations with mobile app development to drive productivity and efficiencies in the US and around the world.

Ellen was new to Memphis when she started volunteering with United Way of the Mid-South four years ago. She knew very little about the city and not much about our poverty problems. Before, she lived in Concord, North Carolina where the poverty rate was 10 percent of the population.

“I give credit to my dad’s nomad spirit that encouraged me to move to several states pursuing job opportunities, and which led me to live in Michigan, Florida, North Carolina and now here in Memphis.”

Ellen was already a faithful donor to United Way of the Mid-South, but it was speaking with a coworker who encouraged her to become a more active volunteer that curbed her curiosity.

“I had questions about whether the money I was donating was truly going to the right places, and was it impacting my local community.”

After living in Memphis for a year, she joined a United Way allocations team, visiting partner agencies to observe what the organizations do first-hand.

Ellen gets emotional as she recalls visiting Y-CAP, a prevention and early intervention program for at-risk youth offered by the YMCA of the Mid-South, a United Way partner agency.  She was taken aback to witness former juvenile delinquents and teenagers who once had behavioral issues present a comprehensive business plan.

“The children had to develop a business model for a new restaurant and create a vision and mission statement. It was so exciting to see these kids learn skills at such a young age, skills I didn’t learn until college. They put a lot of work and effort behind it. These are things they couldn’t have gained in a regular classroom. The leaders of the program do such a good job with tracking each child’s progress, from improved behavior to the improvement in grades. These aren’t just afternoon programs; these are initiatives that really teach life skills for children and their families.”

Y-CAP also partners with and supports parents through counseling, giving a holistic approach to their environments and other external and internal factors that could affect a child’s development. 77 percent of families in the Y-CAP program are “low-income.”

Ellen’s time volunteering has led her to acknowledge some of her privileges and “blessings” while igniting her desire to get involved and find solutions to the many challenges in Memphis.

“When you see these kids and you see the work these organizations do for them and their families, it humanizes the issue of poverty. This is their reality.”

Ellen has become a community advocate, enlisting fellow employees to not just donate money, but also their time and resources through United Way of the Mid-South. She plans to continue to volunteer, anticipating learning more about the realities of poverty in Memphis and creating solutions.

“Every year, I’ve had the opportunity to visit different organizations on my own. It’s eye-opening to see all the local effort. I didn’t know much about poverty besides what I see on the news. I just didn’t know. As long as you don’t see it, you don’t really think about it and it’s easy to move on with your own life. But when you see it, it’s hard to ignore it.”

United Way works with thousands of volunteers who contribute monetarily and give of their time and service. Our volunteers serve a vital role to the mission and vision of United Way of the Mid-South. They make it possible for us to support our network of agencies that help people living in poverty.

“I support United Way 100 percent. I think focusing on supporting people in poverty is great and much needed. We have to ask ourselves where can we make the greatest impact as members of this community. I know United Way will touch all areas that drive poverty, and I’m excited to be a part of the allocations team again this year.”


“The conditions were terrifying.”

“I knew I had to not only remove my children from that environment, but expose them to what it means to be financially stable and successful. So I went back to school.”

Before Dr. Kenneth S. Robinson was the CEO of United Way of the Mid-South, he was the pastor of St. Andrew A.M.E Church in South Memphis where he counseled and connected to hundreds upon thousands of people for decades. Nataline was one of those people.

“I remember getting to know Nataline when she worked for Earnestine Rivers Childcare Center which was and still housed inside St. Andrew. Her determination and drive to orchestrate a better life for her and her daughters encouraged and motivated me like never before in my years of ministry.”

Nataline was a single mother of three and had recently escaped an abusive relationship. Living in public housing, she made a vow to protect her children and their futures from becoming what she had experienced.

“The conditions were terrifying. I knew I had to not only remove my children from that environment, but expose them to what it means to be financially stable and successful. So I went back to school.”

Nataline was enrolled in Southwest TN Community College while working at the child care center. After revealing her living and financial situation to Dr. Robinson, a member of his staff connected her to Memphis Housing Authority who helped in moving her family from public housing to Section 8.

“Through St. Andrew’s resources, I was also led to Department of Children’s Services, Juvenile Court, Department of Human Services, and The Works, Inc.”

“I have met a number of people in our ministry who were in need – not needy – but in need of an opportunity, a connection, or a second chance to get it right and live their dreams. Watching Nataline transition and navigate her way to a better life – one she envisioned for herself – awakened my understanding how poverty and how we can tackle it as a collective.”

Now 43, Nataline serves as the Program Manager for Communities in Schools. All three of her daughters have completed high school and are pursuing college degrees.

Nataline’s story redefined “ministry” for Dr. Robinson. The places one can go with a dream, a group of helping hands, and the drive to fulfill it. Thus, Driving The Dream was born.

After retiring as a pastor, Dr. Robinson’s top priority upon becoming CEO of United Way of the Mid-South was clear: creating pathways out of poverty in Memphis.

Nataline had assistance from more than one person, more than one resource, more than one agency. People living in poverty are struggling to navigate this system of distress, depression and depletion, keeping them from achieving their dreams. In order to dismantle one system, another system has to be created.

Driving The Dream is a system-of-care network with shared data, strategies, and resources amongst a host of organizations, agencies and services in order to “drive” people living in poverty towards a better quality of life and self-sufficiency. The goal is for multiple organizations to help assist an individual tackle the multiple stressors and challenges that arise and keep a person in poverty.

“With more collaboration, we can create more Natalines,” says Dr. Robinson. “We can help people living in poverty turn their dreams into a reality.”


“Is this a real house, mommy? Does someone live here?”

Tonya was sleeping on the floor of her aunt’s house with her 3 and 1-year old daughters when she was introduced to a Hope House representative. 

“It wasn’t an ideal situation for me, with two small children.”

While working as a peer advocate at the Shelby County Health Department, she told her story about living with HIV. A supervisor and friend introduced her to Hope House, a United Way partner agency nonprofit. One day, with her daughters by her side, she stopped by the small, sky blue cottage on Idlewild Avenue in Memphis.

Hope House’s mission is “to improve the quality of life for HIV-affected individuals and their families by providing high-quality early childhood education and social services.”

It did not register with Tonya at the time, but she would soon find the family and support she needed to live her dreams within the corners of Hope House.

Tonya was afraid as soon as a member of the team opened the door. Not knowing whether she would be immediately judged for her living situation and health status, she planned to maintain a cordial demeanor, observing the attitudes and characteristics of the Hope House staff.

“We are intentional about having a home-space because we want people to feel at home here,” said Lenox Warren, Director of Development.

For the first time, Tonya felt welcomed for who she was. She had endured stigmatization from friends and family. A co-worker became emotional when she revealed she had HIV. Yet Hope House gave Tonya the support and strength she needed to endure and educate people away from their biases, and even how to combat her own.

“When I first found out I was positive, I was afraid,” says Tonya. “I was afraid I would die in front of my children while they were with me. I was afraid I would be alone, and I even struggle with this fear today.”

Tonya remembers feeling like “scum” for not being able to provide healthy and quality housing for her children and sometimes not being able to afford groceries. She admits she had to take routes she didn’t want to for money to ensure her children could eat. She was depressed and unhappy with no direction or guidance to point her where she needed to go.

“But there’s hope. There’s a silver lining around every cloud.”

Hope House introduced Tonya to a system of care that was invested in her success. A year after she was admitted as a client, Hope House assisted Tonya with finding a home for her and her children. It was the first time in a long time that Tonya had a place of her own and her children had their own room. Thanks to a grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Hope House can assist clients with finding quality and affordable housing for their families.

“I was so excited. I stopped by garage and estate sales to find furniture. It’s all mine. I was so grateful for our first night. There were no lumps or bumps. I slept like a baby.”

Tonya is now a junior at the University of Memphis, studying computer engineering with a minor in social work. Her dream is to interconnect all HIV databases to support clients and reduce the number of times they have to relive and retell their story. Her daughters are straight-A scholars. Her oldest was recently inducted into the National Junior Beta Club and her youngest won her school-wide spelling bee.