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United Way honors 'community heroes'

By Katherine Poythress
Times Staff Writer


Published: Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 9:41 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 9:42 p.m.


The United Way of Etowah County was one of only two United Way chapters in Alabama that raised the funds it needs to maintain level operations this year, said Executive Director Joanne Hightower.


Volunteers raised more than $1.3 million for the local United Way chapter during its annual campaign in 2009.


"Why was that, in a year when we had more than 10 percent unemployment?" she asked rhetorically in her closing remarks at the United Way of Etowah County's annual meeting Thursday morning.


"Because you and your companies advocated and volunteered," she said. "That was the difference."


The morning event, which took place over breakfast at the Senior Activity Center in Gadsden, focused on recognizing and thanking the organization's partner agencies, volunteers and advocates.


"As important as United Way donors are, the volunteers are equally important." said Matt Hayes, 2009 president of the UWEC board of directors. "All of you are the advocates and heroes of our community, working to make Etowah County a better place to live."


The four building blocks of the United Way are to promote education, financial stability, health and safety in the communities it serves, said last year's campaign chairman and the 2010 board president, Todd Edmondson.


"Advancing the common good means opportunities to access the basics that we all need for a good life," Edmondson said.


Many organizations can work separately to address each of those issues, but "United Way wants to be the catalyst to identify the best practices, bring everyone to the table and find the resources to make it happen," he said.


Volunteers shared statistics to help paint a picture for the work that has been accomplished by United Way partner agencies, but also the work that remains to be done.


• Education: In Etowah County, 37 percent of children do not have adequate school readiness skills, and only 61 percent of children graduate high school in four years with a standard diploma, said Lisa Thacker, vice president of community planning.


• Financial Stability: Twenty-three percent of working families in Etowah County are low income, and 37 to 40 percent of those families spend nearly half their income on housing, said Vice President of Planning Jon Costa.


• Health: Of all babies born in Etowah County, 10.6 percent of them are born to an unmarried teenage mother, said the Rev. James Elliott, citing the Alabama Department of Health Kids Count Data Book. Nearly half of Etowah County's high school students and 20 percent of eighth-graders drink on weekends, and 30 percent of high schoolers smoke, he said.


• Safety Net: Unemployment reached 10 percent and higher last year, causing a 30 percent increase in requests for help, said Joyce Luker, a board member and allocation panel chairwoman for safety net agencies.


The United Way's partner agencies work hand-in-hand to alleviate these conditions, and each volunteer shared a breakdown of the more than 100,000 times last year a service was performed by a United Way partner.


"We thank you for your work every day, and we thank the individuals and companies that support this work throughout the year," Luker said.