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Agencies team up to put family on its feet

December 28, 2008

One problem with getting older is that you begin to lose your sense of time. What happened a couple of years ago seems like just a couple of months in the past.

That's why I can't tell you precisely when this happened, but it hasn't been that long ago, because my youngest son was already grown.

Over the years at The Herald-Mail, I've been drawn into those stories about people who either have life-threatening illnesses, or who have become entangled in circumstances that turn their lives upside down.

This is a story about the latter.

She was a single mother, working as a cook, when she fell out with the owner of the restaurant where she worked. She was fired, couldn't pay her rent and ended up in a homeless shelter.

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While there, she got another job and began to save for a security deposit on an apartment. In the shelter, she met another woman who suggested that it would make more sense if they pooled their funds.

After the fact, you can see where this was going. The other woman took her money, but didn't use it for a security deposit. She ripped off her trusting fellow shelter resident.

The theft violated the woman's probation, but left her victim broke again - and without shelter.

The jailed woman's parents took pity on their daughter's victim and offered her and her daughter a place to stay.

But the parents' home was on the far east side of Hagerstown and her job - and her daughter's school - were on the city's west side. It was a long walk every day to school and to work.

And school was about to begin, and the daughter didn't have many clothes.

Fortunately, the United Way of Washington County was able to help.

Community Action Council found her an affordable apartment in the middle of the city. Children in Need was able to supply her daughter with school clothes.

I was there when mother and daughter visited the clothes closet. When mom saw help was available, she began to cry and one of the women working there hugged her and told her everything was going to be all right.

We all need some help every now and then. Like many served by the United Way of Washington County, this woman and her daughter were not freeloaders, but members of the working poor.

They did not want to be in the position they were in, but sometimes circumstances are beyond our control. In the race of life, we stumble and whether we get up depends on whether there is someone there to help us.

In Washington County, that "someone" is often the United Way.

There are a lot of myths about the United Way - that many of those who are served are people who don't want to work and that most of those who contribute are rich enough to cover any shortfall.

Neither is true. United Way serves the working poor, the people who work two jobs and still can't afford health insurance or a mortgage payment.

They haven't given up on the idea of bettering themselves, in large part because they're getting a helping hand.

United Way does more economically what government might have to do all by itself if the charitable appeal wasn't there. United Way cuts government's costs to provide services.

Not sure how your money is being spent? The financial statements of United Way and its member agencies are open for inspection by the public.

They're also audited and reviewed by a group of citizen volunteers.

United Way also creates happy endings. I recently saw the mother and daughter whose story began this column. I honked the horn, they smiled and waved and I drove on, happy that my charitable dollars had done some good.

To donate online, go to www.unitedwaywashcounty.org/ or send a check to the United Way, 33 W. Franklin St., Suite 203, Hagerstown MD 21742.

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

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