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December 2003

Arlene Kaukus - "Repair the World"

by Craig J. THRALL

Personal, social, and community responsibility. Sure it's important, but is it a quality of generations past? Have today's citizens lost it? Perhaps parents stopped teaching the value of helping others.

"I think people today care about their community and about doing what's right for others just as much as those that came before us," said Arlene Kaukus. "The difference is that people might not know how to go out and act on those good intentions. They might not know where to begin, but I believe it's a responsibility to care for others. It's not a choice. Each religion says it in its own way. In Judaism, it's 'tikun olan,' - meaning 'repair the world.' I think we all need to do our part. It's simply not a choice in my book."

To Arlene Kaukus, the first and most important step in improving our community begins with building on the importance of family. "The balance between family and work is the greatest challenge for every working parent," said Arlene. "No matter how busy we are, we have to do the best we can at our most important job that of being a parent. Good or bad, our decisions and actions have a permanent and lasting effect on our lives and the lives of our children."

Arlene and her husband Ron Maier are busy parents, perhaps more than most. Arlene Kaukus is president of the United Way of Buffalo & Erie County. Ron is president of the Elizabeth Pierce Olmsted, M.D. Center for the Visually Impaired. Daily appointments, board meetings, staff issues and strategic planning can't get in the way of Arlene and Ron's devotion to family.

"If you've ever had a meeting with Arlene, you'd know that she is accessible via a cell phone nearly around the clock," said Edward (Ted) Walsh Jr., former United Way board of directors chair (2000-2003). "At any time, I could be having a serious discussion with Arlene about collaborative emergency response or the investment of United Way funds and her phone would ring. It would be her young daughter and you could see Arlene light up. She would take a moment and be there for her daughter, when all she needed was the comfort of her mother, not the dynamic community leader. Arlene then would say goodbye as only a gentle parent would, close her phone, smile and get back to the business at hand."

Arlene and Ron have been married for 15 years, after meeting through the United Way in 1984. Ron has two daughters (Marissa, now age 26, and Margot, 22) from a previous marriage, and as they began their life together, Arlene helped Ron raise the girls. Arlene and Ron have two daughters together, Abigail and Gabrielle, who are in eighth grade and sixth grade, respectively, at Buffalo's City Honors school.

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Arlene and Ron's wedding day in 1988. Joining the festivities were Marissa (left) and Margot. Arlene, Ron, Gabrielle & Abigail during their annual family vacation to Kiaweh Island in South Carolina.
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The Girls - (left to right): Marissa, Abigail, Margot and Gabrielle.

Not unlike the yesteryear television families of "Leave It To Beaver" and "The Brady Bunch," Arlene and Ron take the time for regular, planned family meetings. "Every two weeks or so, we sit down and create an environment where we are more than just together in the same room," said Arlene. "We listen to each other and really communicate." Part of each meeting that is most effective in bringing the family together, is something they call 'Compliments, Apologies & Thank You's.' Each member of the family - including young sibling to young sibling - must say either a compliment, apology or thank you to each and every person.

"We find it powerful in that you say the things that normally go unsaid," continued Arlene. "Those little things need to be said, because moments of appreciation and the soothing words of an apology can often get lost in the shuffle of life. I believe that if every family got together and held family meetings, it could make a huge difference in this world. Take the time. Get closer with your family and address the unaddressed."


Arlene Kaukus was born in Buffalo's Deaconess Hospital in 1953. The middle child of three, Arlene is separated in age by four years under older sister Kathy and over younger brother Ben. Kathy is a pastoral chaplain in a Little Rock, Arkansas senior housing complex. Ben is always on the go, traveling as a regional manager for a company that provides linens to restaurants and hospitals. They don't see each other as much as they'd like, but they stay in touch frequently on the phone.

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Arlene as an infant, always had big sis Kathy looking out for her. Kindergarten memories - a school picture from Terrace Elementary School in Depew.
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Arlene age 8 - First Communion. On a 1969 vacation in the Adirondacks. A 16-year-old Arlene looks like she's having more fun than younger brother Ben (at right).

Growing up in a one-floor ranch house on Harvard Avenue in Depew, Arlene led an active childhood. "My neighborhood was loaded with other kids," reflected Arlene. "We were always playing softball, jacks and paper dolls. We had a deep backyard and the neighborhood baseball games were most often played there. My father was great with us, usually acting as either the pitcher, the catcher or the coach."

Arlene attended St. James Catholic School in Depew. The nuns that taught her had a very heavy influence on her. "I may have been afraid of some of them, but they were all positively powerful in their commitment to education and children. They inspired me because they cared about something greater than themselves. They kept us in line and taught us a lot."

Things changed a bit for Arlene when her parents got divorced while she was in 8th grade. She moved with her mother and siblings to the Village of Williamsville and started anew at Bishop Newman Catholic High School. Not only up against the normal throes of adolescence, Arlene was now faced with friends left behind and the challenges of a different school.

In high school, Arlene was very focused on making new connections, new friends and easing what could have been a traumatic shift in her life. "I felt like a fish out of water at first, but I quickly latched on and made great new friends," said Arlene.

A large, close circle of friends - a boyfriend - lots of extra curricular activities— Arlene was finding her place.

"I tried out for the cheerleading squad one year," said Arlene smiling. "During the tryout, I split my pants and knew right there that I wasn't cut out to be a cheerleader. I knew there was something else out there for me."

So maybe she wasn't the greatest athlete, but she got involved in nearly every other type of school activity, chairing dances, working on the stage crew for school plays and participating in student government. "It was about trying all sorts of activities to find out what you like and what you are good at."

Arlene also discovered an enjoyment and knack for helping other people while working jobs to help her mother pay the bills. "When I was 15, I cleaned resident rooms at the Blocher Home, an assisted living facility in Williamsville. The building was an old mansion, and each room was uniquely shaped and decorated with the personal pictures, furniture and effects of each resident. The residents would stay in the rooms while I cleaned and we would talk. I learned a lot about them and we mutually cared for one another. Helping people became a priority in my life."

In college, Arlene got a Bachelor's Degree in Social Work from Buffalo State College and became a social worker in a nursing facility. "I felt I was good as a social worker, and I enjoyed connecting with the people I worked with as human beings, not clients," said Arlene. After a couple years, Arlene realized she wanted to do more for people, and that to really drive change and improve conditions for people, she needed to move from working on a personal one-on-one level to the bigger picture of human needs.

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Arlene (at right) gets silly with her college roommate Lauren outside their Wittenberg University dorm room. Proud parents Frances & Ben Kaukus congratulate Arlene after earning her Master's Degree from Case Western Reserve University (1976).

Enter the United Way. A local human service organization that is big enough to make an impact on the community through its wide collaborative partners, but still small enough to see, touch and respond to the needs of local people. "I believe in the work of United Way, and I believe that this community needs United Way," said Arlene.

Arlene began at the United Way of Buffalo & Erie County in 1979 as allocations manager for health services. Rising to president at the beginning of 2001, Arlene Kaukus has been a part of nearly every function of the organization throughout her 24-year United Way career, including agency relations, investments, marketing, fundraising, major gift philanthropy and strategic planning. "It's inspiring to work together with caring staff and volunteers from all walks of life. It doesn't matter if you walk into United Way as a CEO of a major corporation or as a grassroots block club leader - you're valued the same, as we work together to make our community better for all."

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For the past 3 years, Arlene has weight trained under the guidance of Ron Chew at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Buffalo. More than a hobby, Arlene trains three times per week and is thinking about entering competitions.


Times are tough for many. The economy is down. To some, things look bleak in Buffalo, Erie County and in Western New York. Where are we headed?

"I think there is a bright and different future ahead," said Arlene. "We have so many untapped resources in our community. The world is different now and our place in it has changed. The resurrection of this community has already begun, but it's going to take inspiration from our own people. We have all got to believe, with hope, that a better community is possible if we all put our differences aside and give it everything we have to make it successful. Then, with total inclusion, we can welcome everyone into building on the success and the solution."

Day by day, through her efforts, through the United Way, and by bringing people to the table, Arlene Kaukus is trying to repair the world, and make it a little better for her family and yours.

Craig J. Thrall. Craig Thrall is the Director of Marketing & Communications for the United Way of Buffalo & Erie County.


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