The Safety Net Caught Me - United Way Bay Area
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The Safety Net Caught Me

June 19, 2017


Growing up in public housing as an only child with a single mom in the Fillmore District of San Francisco was not easy. My mother worked hard everyday as we struggled to make ends meet. She ensured we kept a roof over our head and put food (the basics) on the table.

Like most children, I grew up asking my mother to buy me things when we were in stores. But, I quickly learned the code for “we can’t afford that,” which was the phrase “next time, son.” Once I caught on, I didn’t stop asking, yet I didn’t openly object when she continuously said “next time, son.”

While loving me unconditionally and providing the best that she could, my mother also ensured that we seized every opportunity made possible by the safety net of services available within the community. As a result, I was introduced to United Way Bay Area at a very early stage in my life, when I attended the Audrey L. Smith Child Development Center, a United Way partner agency.

I attended this Center until I was 13-years-old, when I convinced my mother that I was too old (and honestly too cool) to attend a child care center. She agreed and immediately required that I join the Columbia Park Boys & Girls Club after school programs EVERYDAY. AND, the following year, she signed me up to work for the Mayor’s Summer Youth Jobs Program. AND, she signed me up for a big brother, through Big Brothers Big Sisters. AND, she signed me up to play on the basketball team at the Buchanan YMCA. AND, she signed me up to get swimming lessons at the Hamilton Rec & Park Pool.

“But mom, I don’t even like to swim!” I objected strongly and was quickly reminded that, while the U.S. was a democracy, my household was not. In my important formative years, the safety net caught me and put me on a path to personal and professional success.

After high school, I attended City College, while I worked as a tutor at Audrey L. Smith Development Center – the center I attended as a child. In school, I was on an educational path to becoming an architect. However, a conversation with the young students at the Child Development Center altered the course of my life and career.

While talking about possible careers, one 9-year-old boy declared that he wanted to become a pimp just like his uncle. I wasn’t shocked. I knew he aspired to be what he saw every day at home. I decided that I wanted to do everything I could do to expand this young child’s vision for what he could achieve in life. Since he wanted to be what he saw, I was determined to expand what he saw. I no longer desired to be an architect, I wanted to change the world, one young person and family at a time.

I quickly put away the drawing board and T-square and picked up courses in early childhood development and earned a bachelor’s degree in Public Administration from the University of San Francisco. I ultimately became the Executive Director of Audrey L. Smith Development Center, supporting more than 250 families and their children every day.

Today, in my role as Chief Operating Officer at United Way Bay Area, I have the incredible privilege of helping lead our community impact work that touches the lives of more than 250,000 individuals and their families. Speaking from my daily experience — we are changing the world!

None of our work is more personally gratifying than our Youth Jobs Plus Initiative. In partnership with Mayor Ed Lee, various City of San Francisco departments, and the San Francisco Unified School District, we’ve created more than 35,000 jobs and internships for young people (ages 16-24) since 2012.

This was me. A young person needing support and opportunity. The safety net caught me as a young man. That’s why I’m so driven and inspired to help create life-changing opportunities for young people to see what they can be and drive their inner capacity to produce a bright future for themselves!

I’m grateful for United Way for giving me the opportunity to live out my passion and purpose, every single day!

About Eric McDonnell

As Executive Vice President and COO for United Way Bay Area, Eric McDonnell provides strategic, transformational, and operational leadership to achieve the organizational goals. He sets priorities and delivers on the organization’s mission. He drives United Way Bay Area’s efforts to ensure that every child has the opportunity to reach their academic potential and families achieve economic self-sufficiency, while making Bay Area neighborhoods a safer place to live. McDonnell is a committed and passionate advocate for children, families, and communities. Learn more here.