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Trying to be 'the last one in the lifeboat' isn't a good idea

July 23, 2008

Washington County residents are, for the most part, wonderful and giving people - once they see the need.

On the bulletin board in my office are pictures of four children who readers reached out to after I wrote about their serious medical conditions. But raising money is more difficult when you can't see or hear personal details about the people in need.

That's why this year's United Way campaign is so important. With the economy struggling to recover from the mortgage mess and the high price of energy, those people on the edge - the working poor - those many don't see - are going to need even more help this year.

If you are tempted to say, "I've got problems of my own," please think again. If the United Way agencies weren't there, government would have to do more, and without the priceless volunteer help nonprofits have.

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One key agency this winter will be Food Resources Inc., which helps local food banks supplement their donations. In addition, Food Resources also runs the Brown Bag program, in which needy families join a "pod" that meets monthly to select food and grocery items.

The thinking is that by working as a group, the pod members will make healthier choices.

They also pay an $11 per month maintenance fee. That's not for the food, but to cover some of the cost of electricity for lights, refrigerators and freezers.

There are 800 local families now participating, Food Resources officials said Tuesday. By working together, they keep down everyone's costs.

Then there is the Community Action Council, which can provide emergency assistance when, for example, the loss of a job threatens to leave a family homeless.

When someone's home burns down, the local chapter of the American Red Cross steps up to provide temporary shelter, food, clothing and medical care.

And speaking of medical care, the United Way also helps fund the Community Free Clinic, which provides treatment to those who don't have health insurance.

If there were no clinic, those people would go to hospital emergency rooms, increasing waiting times and driving up insured patients' cost of care.

On the topic of keeping down costs, the United Way has been one of the major partners in the Washington County Teen Pregnancy Prevention Coalition.

Every child born to a teenage mother has a greater chance of living out his or her life in poverty, of becoming a substance abuser and becoming involved with the criminal justice system. Reducing the teen birth rate will cut taxpayers' costs, since couples whose children are planned are usually in a better position to support them.

Unplanned children also have a greater likelihood of being neglected and abused. That's where another United Way agency - Friends of Safe Place - can help.

Safe Place is actually a group of agencies, including the police, prosecutors and social service workers who join together to investigation child abuse, including sexual abuse.

The Hagerstown office has a child-friendly environment where young victims can be interviewed once, as opposed to being shuffled from one agency to another to answer the same questions again.

United Way also funds agencies that build character, such as Boy and Girl Scouts, Girls Inc. and Big Brothers Big Sisters.

There are also agencies that help the aged, such as the Commission on Aging and REACH, which, through its "Faith In Action" program, provides volunteers to drive senior citizens to and from their doctors' appointments.

Every United Way agency is audited annually and its programs are scrutinized for their effectiveness by a board of local volunteers. An agency that has a program that isn't successful isn't likely to get it funded. Financial records are open to the public.

The tendency to want to be "the last one in the lifeboat" is a natural human trait. Self-preservation is in our genes.

But in this community, letting others sink only increases the likelihood that the entire community will suffer.

And if you still don't care about the plight of others, consider this: One day, you just might be the one who needs help.

The campaign kicks off Aug. 22, at 7 p.m. at a Hagerstown Suns game at Municipal Stadium.

If you'd like to help, call 301-739-8200 or donate online at www.unitedwaywashcounty.org.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail.

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