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Keep local people in your hearts, as well

October 30, 2005|By BOB MAGINNIS

When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, the Category 4 storm overwhelmed New Orleans and other coastal cities in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, claiming more than 1,000 lives and doing more than $70 billion in damage.

The pictures of the storm's victims, some wading through flooded streets, others crying for help from their rooftops, have inspired Americans to donate $1.2 billion so far.

That same week, officials of the United Way of Washington County kicked off their annual campaign. They asked for much less than Katrina relief will require - this year's goal is $1.7 million - but the people they will help are not quite as visible. Give what your heart tells you to give to Katrina's victims, they say, but don't forget there are local people who have needs, too.

Those local people are not wading through flooded streets, but waiting for a Meals on Wheels volunteer to bring them nourishment and some precious human contact. They're not waiting for a boat to pick them up, but for the start of an after-school program designed to keep them from getting pregnant or abusing drugs.

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As of last Wednesday, the campaign had raised about $700,000, or about 40 percent of goal.

Asked whether the campaign was on track, Gary Wright, the campaign's co-chair, said that "last year we were at 55 percent at the same stage."

Pressed for a prediction, Wright said, "You never really know until it's all in. We're cautiously optimistic."

If the fund drive is somewhat behind schedule, Wright said, it is probably because some large local companies that usually have their employee campaigns done by now held Katrina appeals first.

"Some of the large campaigns haven't even kicked off yet," he said.

Wright said the backbone of the United Way is employee campaigns. If every person in Washington County pledged $1 a week, United Way could raise $5 million with no trouble, he said.

To bring home the importance of such campaigns, United Way is sending a mail appeal to about half the households in Washington County.

According to Shuan Butcher, resource development and campaign director, the message will be that nearly every citizen has a connection of one sort or another with one of 20 member agencies.

For example, Butcher said, the local chapter of the American Red Cross gets much of the money it uses to conduct blood drives from United Way.

For Big Brothers Big Sisters of Washington County, which now runs school-based mentoring programs, the percentage of funding that comes from United Way is close to 50 percent, according to Dale Bannon, United Way's executive director.

"For the Boy Scouts, Girls Inc. and the Boys and Girls Club, it's over 20 percent," Bannon said, adding that those are dollars the agencies don't have to spend volunteer time and resources to raise.

Bannon said the local United Way prides itself on the tight control it keeps over its own fundraising. Last year, administrative and fundraising costs were just 11.3 percent of budget, well below the standards set by the Better Business Bureau.

Fund-raising and budget processes are transparent as well, Bannon said.

Each year, every member agency must send the agency a copy of its annual budget, the Form 990 tax return nonprofits must fill out and a copy of its annual audit. And if anyone wants to review the books, they're open to scrutiny, Bannon said.

Not more than 25 percent of any agency's budget can go to fundraising and administration and each must also have a solid board of directors, Bannon said.

Wright said that for him, the strongest part of United Way is the fact that a volunteer committee of businesspeople oversees how funds raised are spent.

Agencies that want money in 2006 must not only offer detailed plans on how they're going to spend it, Wright said, but they must also document how they spent what they received in the current year - and how that spending improved the community.

The money is needed, Bannon said, even though those who will benefit aren't always visible.

"If it's not the senior in your neighborhood getting food from Meals on Wheels, it's the kids in schools attending after-school programs run by agencies like Girls Inc.," Bannon said.

Such programs, which help students with self-esteem and teach them the importance of making good choices, should help to cut what all agree is an unacceptably high teen birth rate in the county, Bannon said.

In Hancock, Bannon said the Interfaith Service Coalition has been "the backbone of the community" in the wake of Fleetwood Travel Trailers closing, providing food and other help to the families of those who were laid off.

"That's just part of it," Bannon said.

United Way also funds training in cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR), a potentially life-saving skill, Bannon said, and helps pay for a van the Red Cross uses to transport local veterans to the Veterans Medical Center in Martinsburg, W.Va.

Bannon and his colleagues hope to wind the campaign down on or about Dec. 1 and have a "pre-report" on how much was raised by Dec. 15.

At that point last year, Bannon said, the campaign was falling short and volunteers had to appeal to donors to increase their contributions.

What wait? By Dec. 15, you'll have other things on your mind. If you haven't contributed to your employee campaign yet, please do so.

If your company doesn't have a campaign, please call United Way at 301-739-8200 and ask how you can donate. After all, you never know when it will be you or a member of your family who is in need.

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