"It’s All About Empowerment”: A Conversation with United Way of Olmsted County Donors

Eastern european husband and wife standing with stroller on path through field of wildflowers
     “Dolly Parton's Imagination Library, distributed by United Way, was the first piece of mail that had her name on it. I'm a sentimental
so that was a big deal to me.” - Rawhi Said (left) 


Rawhi and Zerina Said’s family has been involved with United Way of Olmsted County in a variety of ways for many years and multiple generations, including as donors and as beneficiaries of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, a program provided by UWOC. We recently caught up with the couple (and their new baby!) to talk about their experiences. 


Q. How long have you been living in Olmsted County? 


Zerina Said: I have been living in Olmsted County since November of 2019. 


Rawhi Said: I came to this country in '93, and we immediately moved to Rochester. So '93 to '23, that's almost 30 years of wonderful community, a wonderful place to call home.  


Q. Where were you before? 


Rawhi: I was born in a country that no longer exists. It was called Yugoslavia, but it broke into six, seven – well, depends on who you ask, maybe even eight – different republics. I was born in modern day Bosnia. After that happened, we lived in a refugee camp in Croatia for a year, and then my family came to the United States in ‘93. 


Zerina: And I was born in Bosnia. I was born after the war, so it became Bosnia, and then we moved to Michigan – emigrated. And when Rawhi and I got married in 2019, then I moved to Rochester. 


Q. And how long have you been involved with United Way of Olmsted County? 


Rawhi: Professionally, you could say my entire career, but I think we've been involved as a family with United Way for decades. United Way actually helped my mom find a job nearly 15, 16 years ago. I would say for 30 years, in one way or another, United Way has impacted my life, either professionally or personally. 


“It's really tangible to see multi-generational impacts of United Way both for my family and now the next generation.” 


Zerina: Once I started working at the Intercultural Mutual Assistance Association, I realized United Way has funded some of the programming that we've done. I'm also working closely with Whole Family Systems right now as a Program Coordinator, and we work with Cradle 2 Career, which is connected to United Way. Having those connections, I've seen a lot of the impact. And now our family is actually benefiting from Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library through United Way, because we signed our daughter up right away. We had her at Mayo, and they gave us the form to fill out. Once we got home, we completed that, sent it in, then they emailed me the information, and then the book came. So, I think it kind of went from career to more personal since we had our baby. 


Rawhi: It's really tangible to see multi-generational impacts of United Way both for my family and now the next generation. In fact, Dolly Parton's Imagination Library, distributed by United Way, was the first piece of mail that had her name on it. I'm a sentimental guy, so that was a big deal to me. It hits completely differently when you see your daughter's name, who's at the time three or four weeks old, with mail. So, I thought that was kind of neat. 


Q. Rawhi, you mentioned you've been involved with United Way of Olmsted County in a professional capacity. What did that look like? 


Rawhi: So fun fact, before I started working at Mayo, I actually had Zerina's old role, and United Way has been instrumental in Whole Family Systems, meaning, you know, how do we approach problems on a whole family system level. I will tell you, there were ups and downs. And one of the things that was really nice is that you always had United Way as the foundation to lean on when things were sometimes at a dead end. I think United Way has – and this is just my opinion on it – some of the same caliber of people, but they're movers. So, if they say something, they get it done. And I really love that about United Way. As a professional I know that if I call them to the table, they will come. I also worked very closely with United Way with the census. And that's really important to me as a first-generation immigrant, having everybody counted and participating in the census. You know, Rochester is very blessed to have a lot of great organizations in the community. One thing I will say about United Way of Olmsted County is anything they do is well thought out and intentional. 


Q. Would you expand on why you think it's important to give back to the community? And then why, more specifically, do you choose to do that through United Way? 


Rawhi: My mom always said we came to this country with the shirts on our backs and two bags. And it's organizations like the United Way and many other nonprofits that are in the trenches, so to speak, helping these families out in some capacity, whether it's direct services or indirectly, by funding other nonprofits. And so being a beneficiary of that and seeing where I am today, you know, you could say there's a strong correlation between helping the nonprofits and the tangible and measurable success of the people they’re impacting. The reason I think United Way's a unique model, is let's say you are passionate about something that really means a lot to you. You can designate where your money goes, which is a form of transparency that I have not seen anywhere else. United Way, and this speaks to their leadership, has really done a great job of allowing you to put your money where you want it to go and having it go the distance that you want it to go. 


Zerina: Here, when refugees and immigrants come, they really have a large support system from these different organizations that get funding, versus when I look at the community that I grew up in [in Michigan], the Bosnian community, they didn't know about the resources that were available, or things weren't getting translated in different languages. Here, I feel like people come and they're able to get access to these resources. You guys fund these programs that – like Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, my family didn't know about it growing up. I think that would have been so neat to have, especially as a newbie to the United States, having something come in the mail for you. I feel like, as a little kid, that would have been amazing. Knowing that that's a resource that's available to kids here, and that we can connect families to, I think that's really unique. I think it goes to show that if you do give back, there's a lot more success. And when I think about my childhood and the way that I grew up, and the way my parents grew up, the resources just get richer and richer. And now looking at our daughter, how much more she gets to experience in life, because we have these resources that we continue to have because of people giving back. 


Q. What are your hopes for the future? 


Zerina: I think I had you asked me before I gave birth, I would have probably given a different answer. I think since becoming a mom, when I think about hopes for the future, really, it's raising her to also have that giving back mentality. We came here and we had a suitcase and maybe like 100 bucks. And because of the help that we received, and the support that we've received, we were able not only to have the American Dream eventually, but I was able to do my schooling and get my master's degree, which I was the first in my family to even get to that level of education. And so knowing just how much help has helped me be successful, I think it's important to pass that to the next generation. And I think through the work that I do within the nonprofit world, I hope that she can see the value of it. 


“United Way, and this speaks to their leadership, has really done a great job of allowing you to put your money where you want it to go and having it go the distance that you want it to go.” 


Rawhi: Eloquently said. My daughter is a fourth generation Said. She's now the first generation not either born or to have lived in a refugee camp. So my grandfather, my father, and myself, all experienced displacement. My grandfather, in the ‘40s, in the Middle East. My father was born in a refugee camp in Jordan. And then, you know, I was born in the ‘90s, in a war, in a genocide, and lived part of my life in a refugee camp. And so this is the first generation to be born not to know what war is. But I do expect, and I would love for her to be able to know what her history is, what her identity is. To be able to be – not empathetic, but sympathetic. My dream and hope would be for her to be able to give back continuously, and always to be in a position of giving. 


Q. Last question – what do you think it means to Live UNITED? 


Rawhi: I think what it means to Live UNITED is to live equitably. It's incredibly hard to say this without sounding incredibly corny or cheesy, but at the end of the day, Live UNITED to me really, truly means that we're all getting along. That we're all happy that we're all helping one another, that we're inclusive of one another. That we truly seek to understand before we react. And I'll be honest with you. I think we're closer to that definition than we have ever been before. It might not seem like it, it might not feel like it, but I do truly believe we are moving forward. Even though it's slow, it's still moving forward. And it's still progress. That's what Live UNITED means for me.  


Zerina: I think I would agree, for everyone to be able to just come together. Obviously, we're all different and we have different perspectives. But I think setting that aside and knowing that at the end of the day, we're all trying to work together to make it in this life. And if we're against each other, it's not going to help anyone. But if we're with each other, and if we're able to set aside those differences and find a way to meet in the middle, we can be successful. Not only in relationships, but as a community – and even organizations, depending on what their philosophies are, if we can set aside those disagreements and focus on what we do agree with, we can make change happen. For me, as a social worker, it's all about empowerment, and I think when you Live UNITED, each person is empowered to be who they are. 


This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 





About Us

United Way of Olmsted County (UWOC) is a community change organization with the mission to unite people and resources to improve lives in our community. We fight for the health, education, and financial stability of every person in our community in a variety of ways: we collaborate with local organizations, businesses, and community leaders to mobilize their expertise and resources; we accelerate impact by strengthening systems and cultivating leaders to build a community where all people can thrive, regardless of race or place; and we participate in a collective effort that empowers local residents to create lasting transformations in their own communities through our focus on community-driven change.