United Way launches ‘What’s your story?’ campaign to raise $6.9 million

Youngsters enjoy the United Way kickoff luncheon

A color guard of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts were excited to carry the flags, and a group from area Boys & Girls Clubs of the Chattahoochee Valley were just excited to open the annual United Way Campaign Kick Off Luncheon
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A color guard of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts were excited to carry the flags, and a group from area Boys & Girls Clubs of the Chattahoochee Valley were just excited to open the annual United Way Campaign Kick Off Luncheon

The United Way of the Chattahoochee Valley kicked off its 2017 fundraising campaign Thursday highlighting the stories of people impacted by charitable organizations.

Raymond Smith, chief of the Phenix City Police Department, opened the event by reading a few lines to children from the Boys & Girls Club of the Chattahoochee Valley. He said this year’s campaign theme — Different Stories 1 Community — is about helping to create better narratives.

“You know, stories are exciting, they usually have good endings and resolved endings,” he said. “But sometimes life doesn’t give us those kinds of stories. And we’re here to talk about some of those stories today, and we’re looking for you to support us in making sure that even the stories that happen in life that don’t start off so well have a good resolved ending as well.”

Later in the program, he revealed this year’s United Way goal of $6,900,000.

Sitting in the audience were about 1,000 people who showed up for the kick-off, held at the Columbus Convention & Trade Center. The crowd included United Way board members, staff, volunteers and representatives from various local companies.

First responders sat at a table made possible by the generosity of United Way supporters. Those present included the Columbus Police Department, Columbus Fire & EMS Department, Phenix City Police Department, Phenix City Fire Department, Russell County Sheriff’s Office, Muscogee County Sheriff’s Office, Marshal’s Office, and active-duty military were honored and thanked for their service at the event.

In his remarks, Smith emphasized the impact that the United Way has had on his work in law enforcement.

“As the police chief and being involved in public safety for the last 27 years, I have utilized United Way agencies over and over again throughout my career,” he said. “I couldn’t do my job, I couldn’t make my community safer without the help and assistance of the United Way supported agencies.”

Funds raised during the campaign are invested in local programs by volunteers. The programs must meet a need in one of United Way’s four core areas of Health, Income, Basic Needs, and Education, demonstrate results, and show good stewardship of the community’s money, according to a news release issued by the organization.

“Individuals in our community have truly amazing stories,” said President and CEO Scott Ferguson. “Many of their stories have been positively influenced by the work of United Way and our community partners. We are excited about this year’s campaign, and look forward to hearing, sharing and helping to create many new success stories,” he added.

Susan Wiggins of Women United, formerly the Women’s Leadership Council, announced plans for this year’s “Power of the Purse” Luncheon, which will be held Nov. 2, 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., at the St. Luke Ministry Center.

The keynote speaker will be Aimee Copeland, an Atlanta woman who lost her hands, a leg and a foot in a fight with flesh-eating bacteria. The cost for the event is $35 per person and $300 per table. Women who attend are asked to bring new underwear for women in need.

Other speakers at Thursday’s event included three individuals who shared their personal stories of how United Way agencies impacted their lives.

Carmen Donegan, 17, said she was sexually abused at 12 years old. When the assailant was never brought to justice, she felt her life was worthless, which led to a life of rebellion, drugs and crime, she said. But through a United Way-funded teen empowerment program called TEARS — as well as the Muscogee County Juvenile Drug Court — Donegan said she was able to get her life back on track.

She was determined to change after the death of her grandfather, and decided to become a role model for other young adults. Now she has a car, a GED and she’s working to get her own place.

“I just wanted you all to remember that, that extra push, it came with a lot of fussing and tears and cussing and all of that and it came with me having to come back a couple of times,” he said. “Without United Way funding, I probably wouldn’t have been able to get the help that I needed. And I want to tell y’all to continue to donate your time and money because just small acts of kindness could keep our youth out of the streets.”

Playol Shippey, a TSYS employee, said he worked for Teen Advisors, another United Way program, for about three years. He said he joined the organization because of his own experiences as a victim of sexual abuse, the death of his only sibling and the divorce of his parents.

He said his story changed when two of his peers began to invest in his life, praying for him, lifting him up and inviting him to participate in a Bible study.

“... As a result, I went from being a shy and depressed and withdrawn individual with little to no self-worth to being a confident leader among my peers and my friends,” he said. “So when I found out about Teen Advisors, an organization that was equipping teenagers to mentor and to encourage and to reach out to other teens, I knew I had to be a part of it. Because if it wasn’t for those individuals who reached out to me, I’m not sure that I would be here today.”

Mallory Estes stood on the stage with her husband, Addison. She shared the story of her 3-year-old son who was born four months early with his brain, eyes and other parts of his body undeveloped. She said parts of his brain later died. Health professionals told his parents that he may never be able to walk, talk, eat on his own, or even see.

But through Easter Seals, a United Way-funded agency, he has defied all the odds. He’s now walking with some assistance, among other things.

“In two years, Jonah went from not really interacting at all, not having any head control, to rolling all over the house to get his toys,” she said. “.... He’s scooting, he’s holding his sippy cups, he’s using feeding utensils, he’s saying some words. He loves to play games, he plays peek-a-boo, copycat, he plays baseball, he waves hello and goodbye and he blows kisses.”

She said Easter Seals also help the family get a walker and therapeutic equipment to help him physically.

“Through therapy, goal plans, and truly caring about our son and his development, Easter Seals has made Jonah’s future full of possibilities, where before we didn’t know if our son would ever see or talk to us,” she said. “... This is what you sow into when you donate your money to United Way.”

Alva James-Johnson: 706-571-8521, @amjreporter

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