As a life-long Stark County resident, Bob Fernandez wanted to give back to his community from an early age.
“I had parents who had a great deal of pride in Stark County, and they instilled that in me,” said Fernandez. “I always had an eye on the vitality and health of the community. When I reached an age where I could observe those kinds of things, it was in the late ‘60s, when downtown Canton was really on the edge.”
Fernandez went away to college, and upon graduating, he returned to his hometown to work in the Stark County Family Court.
“When I went to college, I intended to come back with some ideas about how to support the financial stability of individuals in the community,” he said. “I felt that the stronger the financial picture was for individuals, the stronger the community would be as a whole.”
Through his work in the juvenile court, Fernandez helped families impacted by domestic violence. When United Way of Greater Stark County invited him to join one of its impact councils, his desire to influence financial stability came full circle.
“Through my work with the impact council, I’m doing exactly what I always dreamed of, even as a high school senior. I’m really lucky,” he said.
When Fernandez first joined, the council focused on family stability. But when United Way of Greater Stark County implemented a new strategic plan, the council shifted its efforts to fund initiatives focused on impacting financial stability.
“One of the reasons that financial stability became the focus area was the financial crisis of 2008. At the time, homes were being foreclosed on. People were losing their jobs,” said Fernandez. “United Way does a great job of being relevant in the community and addressing the emergent needs.”
Fernandez served as chair of the financial stability impact council during that tumultuous time for the community. The organization planned to take a service-based approach to addressing the workforce needs. In 2017, their hard work came to fruition when United Way of Greater Stark County launched its Economic Mobility Center, formerly Financial Prosperity Center. Located at OhioMeansJobs at 822 30th Street NW in Canton, the center is dedicated to helping people achieve financial stability.
The center is home for United Way of Greater Stark County’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, which provides free tax services to low- and moderate-income individuals and families.
“Many, many people have benefited from that service, who wouldn’t have otherwise,” Fernandez said.
The Economic Mobility Center also provides employment counseling and placement, financial education and coaching, and public benefits access.
Fernandez retired from his position as special projects director for Stark County Family Court in September 2018. He continues to serve on the financial stability impact council, and he encourages others to get involved.
“If you have a dream, latch on to it and fulfill it. Don’t denigrate your own thoughts or your own aspirations,” said Fernandez. “If you think there’s an idea for making the Stark County community a better place, United Way offers the opportunity to test that out. Don’t worry about staying in your lane. Follow your own instincts. United Way may very well be the place where your skills and your aspirations will be appreciated.”
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