Kids play at Laurel Boys & Girls Club's after-school program in Laurel, MD. The club is one of 160 of nonprofit organizations that recieved a total of $1.75M in 2012 grants from the United Way. (James Buck)

For Levet Brown, nothing is better than seeing kids come through the doors of the Laurel Boys and Girls Club — kids who might otherwise be on the streets or in gangs. But with a building more than a century old and no funding from the city, the club’s president worries that club’s after-school program has a bleak future.

Now, a United Way grant will give Brown a chance to change more lives.

United Way of the National Capital Area announced Jan. 19 that it is awarding more than $1.75 million to 161 of its 737-member nonprofit groups in the Washington area.

The 256 programs receiving money fall into three categories of need: education, with $540,077 for 72 programs; financial stability, with $630,506 for 84 programs; and health, with $601,553 for 100 programs. Some organizations applicants were given multiple awards for several of their programs.

Bill Hanbury, United Way of the National Capital Area president and chief executive, said that donors can give to a specific group or to a community-impact fund in one of the organization’s regions: Alexandria, Arlington, Loudoun, Montgomery, Prince George’s and Prince William counties, Fairfax County/Falls Church and the District.

Hanbury said a group of 149 leaders and volunteers judged each grant applicant to decide which groups are most likely to help the community and would best utilize their share of the $1.75 million.

Although many causes, such as youth mentoring, are important in the Washington area, Hanbury said, this year’s focus has been on workforce development and battling unemployment.

“For all the energy and all the bounty that is the National Capital Area’s economy, there are a whole bunch of people who don’t have the basic competencies to be able to enter a highly energized workplace,” he said.

Latino Economic Development Corp. seeks to build on its drive for community change by helping Latinos and other Washington area residents prevent foreclosures and start and expand small businesses.

“A lot of people who are unemployed are thinking about self-employment,” communications and advocacy director Ash Kosiewicz said. “People who have experience in certain industries see an opportunity to start a small business. They might not know exactly how to do it, but they have an instinct, and it’s something tangible, something they can take ownership for.”

The grant for Latino Economic Development Corp. will help fill the funding gap caused by government money cuts. Unaudited numbers show about 13 percent less last year, Kosiewicz said. The award is primarily designated for the homeownership program, helping residents modify home loans and for programs on personal finance.

“People believe that their roots are being laid down here,” he said. “They’ve put a lot of time and energy into this region, and knowing what it means to actually have a personal budget, to have good finances, that’s going to be the foundation upon which they stay in their homes and provide a stable place for their families, and then that’s going to strengthen their communities in the process,” Kosiewicz said.

Hanbury said that because of the economy, more people need help with basic needs such as clothing, shelter and health care, but that donations are not keeping pace with requests for help. Nonprofit groups such as Western Fairfax Christian Ministries, which helps provide basic necessities to those at or below the poverty level in Fairfax County, are feeling the economy’s effects.

Western Fairfax Christian Ministries operates a year-round food pantry that provides donated and U.S. Department of Agriculture surplus food to needy families once a month. According to its Web site, the food pantry had a 2.8 percent increase in requests for food from fiscal 2010 to fiscal 2011. However, the pantry was able to provide only 741 households with groceries — a decrease of 3.7 percent from the previous year.

Melissa Jansen, executive director of the group, said the money from United Way will go toward buying dairy products for the pantry, because they often cannot get perishable donations such as milk and eggs.

Jansen said the pantry has had to open more often to accommodate the rising number of families in need of food.

Other organizations, although thankful for their grants, still struggle to expand their services, especially the 2,300-member Laurel Boys and Girls Club.

The club’s after-school program picks up 20 students from schools for daily homework help, computer time and physical activity. Without the United Way grant, President Levet Brown said, the program could not exist, because several students cannot afford its services, which cost $75 to $125 per child. Currently, 17 of the 20 students are unable to pay for the program. The club does not turn children away for financial reasons.

“If it costs nothing to join a gang, then we lose them to the gangs, so we need to have options where it costs nothing to join us,” he said. “Families need this type of service so that they can go to work. If it’s going to cost you more for child care than [what you make at work], most people would choose not to go to work. It’s a situation where we don’t want to turn them back to the streets.”

Brown said that one of the challenges the program faces is the “deplorable” building conditions: crumbling walls, decrepit bathrooms and 11 unusable classrooms. Funding cuts from the government, foundations and corporations make repairs almost impossible.

Despite the problems, Brown said, he continues to try to set an example for the community.

“I’m always for the underdog, and these kids are the underdog here because they don’t have basketball teams at their schools. They don’t get enough time in front of the computer at their schools. That’s what drives me. I’m not a quitter.”