For 27 years, Dave Sikes has been watching out for Lake County’s most vulnerable citizens. Fortunately for them, his vision comes from the heart.
Also fortunately for them, when he retires in April, his passion will be alive and well in the processes his successor will inherit.
Sikes, you see, is the director of allocations for Lake Area United Way, the man who thrives where social consciousness intersects with fiscal responsibility and accountability. He is responsible for coordinating the distribution of millions of dollars donated annually by people like you and me to dozens of agencies that serve the needs of the old, the young, the disabled, the abused, the needy, the hungry, the devastated and, well, you get the picture.
In full disclosure, I have observed Sikes at work the past six years from my seat on LAUW’s board of directors, a seat I yielded this month because of term limits.
During those six years, I witnessed the efforts and results from this self-made dynamo from Griffith (Griffith High School Class of 1966) in stretching a dollar to achieve the greatest benefit, leveraging matching money where possible and demanding compliance from all stakeholders along the way.
His role today is drastically different from when he joined LAUW in 1985 as a labor liaison.
“Back in the early days, before I came on, we were the fastest-growing United Way in the country,” Sikes said. “We had up to $7.9 million in funding for Lake Area, before the steel industry went to hell in a handbasket.
“In the ’70s, we had 120,000 steelworkers from the South Side of Chicago to Northwest Indiana. By the time I started at United Way, we were down to 30,000.”
In a bustling post-World War II economy, labor unions encouraged their members to give back to their communities through payroll deduction. United Way chapters, as the umbrella organization to fund those communities’ valued agencies, was the natural recipient of those payroll deductions.
With the downturn in steel jobs came the drop in donations to United Way, down to ''about $5.5 million when I came in," Sikes said. “By 1990, we began to see a hunker-down survive mentality” from the unions.
Working with LAUW President and CEO Lou Martinez at his right hand, and many volunteers at his left, Sikes has benefited from annual campaign efforts that in recent decades have kept annual funding near the $5 million mark – in most years higher.
Nonetheless, the playing field had changed drastically, and by the time Sikes took over LAUW’s allocations efforts in the early ’90s, downsizing was in full swing across the country. Locally, he said, after the decline in steel jobs, a wave of consolidation with banks and hospitals set the tone for LAUW becoming an even leaner and meaner funding machine.
“When I first came, Lake Area United Way was funding 58 agencies,” Sikes said. “Today, 28 agencies and three initiatives receive funding.”
Sikes played a lead role in keeping quality and impact high when quantity was a challenge.
“I think the thing I’m most proud of was helping professionalize the United Way, making us think that it’s not enough just to be an actionary to a need,” Sikes said. “We need to be able to evaluate whether we’re addressing the need effectively, measure it, and see if we need to improve it. You can’t improve what you don’t measure.”
So Dan Lowery, now president of Calumet College of St. Joseph but then at Indiana University Northwest, was brought in to help LAUW get a handle on outcome management.
“Dan made us go through our own self-assessment, quality management internally, for our staff and for our agencies,” Sikes said. “It was hard to get our agencies to understand what an outcome was, what an outcome indicator is, how do you measure.”
Lowery, likewise, sings Sikes’ praises, saying “he contributed greatly to the overall professionalization of the human services that has taken place in our region over the last 15 to 20 years.”
And, added Lowery:
“Relationships between nonprofit organizations and funder aren’t always easy to manage. Dave, however, has demonstrated an ability to bridge two worlds. He has been phenomenally successful ... because those who serve in those agencies know that Dave honors their respective missions and believes in their work.”
Sikes not only believes in their work, but positions himself deep in the trenches to help make it a reality. The fruits of his labor have been seen throughout his career, joining other key community stakeholders in developing or advancing Hammond’s homeless shelter on State Street, a new headquarters for the Food Bank of Northwest Indiana, a retirement planning program for teachers, courses on attending employee-assistance programs, and so many more initiatives.
Mostly, he enjoyed taking a lead role on any wellness program that would improve the quality of life for the county's residents.
Is it a cruel irony that this champion for health learned five years ago that he was inflicted with multiple myeloma, a cancer that has been linked to exposure of Agent Orange?
Sikes said he served in Vietnam for 18 months and six days, part of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, “the last combat division to go there.”
His number in the draft lottery was 13.
“It could have been exposure to Agent Orange, but I can’t say for sure,” Sikes said. “Hell, it could have been exposure to the substances in the mill (Youngstown Sheet and Tube) that I worked in” after high school.
Sikes has improved his health and remains optimistic.
“Multiple myeloma has no cure,” he said. “Eventually, I’ll lose all my immune system ... But it’s a treatable disease, in a sense, with chemo, with the stem cell transplant that I had. Five years ago, they said, ‘We think you have two to five years left.’ The development of everything has been so phenomenal, I think I can get another three, four years out of this thing.
“Who knows? Maybe God willing, what we were doing is one of those things that will eventually be a cure. If we make it eight years, you begin to think, ‘Maybe what we were doing in your case we can begin to replicate in other cases.’”
Always displaying a vision to help others.
After all, says Dave Sikes, “Life is what you make of it.”