Local business owner Byron Atkinson recently stood before a packed house at the Richmond Hill City Center. The message: "Be the one" and give back to improve lives right here in Bryan County.
Atkinson’s passion for United Way began many years ago while living in Flagstaff, Arizona. He grew up in Phoenix and after attending Northern Arizona University, he found himself with a marketing degree and a desire to purse law school. He not only gained experience while working for attorney-turned Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick, he also developed a deeper understanding of how fulfilling it is to give back to those less fortunate. He said he learned the true meaning of lifting others and how it impacts oneself.
While working under the leadership of Kirkpatrick, Atkinson admits he began to realize his vision of what it meant to be an attorney was skewed.
"The other attorneys were miserable and it made me decide I didn’t want to go to law school," he recalls. "Taking on problems and chasing money, all of them were like that, except Ann. She walked around bright and shiny like she always was. I finally asked her what is the deal, why are you so happy? She said come with me today and took me to a food truck where we handed out sandwiches. Gradually, I had my ‘aha’ moment and recognized how blessed I was and knew that I wanted to do more with United Way."
Eventually, Atkinson would leave the law firm as Kirkpatrick transitioned into politics. He and wife Karin had young children at the time and they ventured into starting their own business.
"We leveraged ourselves and took a chance," he said. "The morning we signed papers, I knew it was a God thing. We took this little thing that had 10 employees and ended up having 50-plus. We ran Clean Sweep, a commercial janitorial service for five years.
"Coming into the fifth year, we knew that our kids were getting older and we decided after being in Flagstaff for 18 years we would move closer to Karin’s family in Richmond Hill," he added. "After managing the business for a year from Georgia and frequent commutes back to Arizona, we sold our business and began a new venture."
One of the first community groups Atkinson affiliated himself with was Rotary. His membership began in 2011 and a leadership role came quickly. He took over the grants chair and by 2012 was on the board or directors. He played a important role in the club’s efforts to tap a spring in Northwest Haiti that was established to bring clean water to 31 communities and over 10,000 residents. Atkinson also aligned himself with the Richmond Hill-Bryan County Chamber of Commerce, where he recently stepped down from the board after serving two years.
Despite his involvement in the United Way in Flagstaff, there was no office in Bryan County when he first moved to Richmond Hill. Atkinson began to focus on a new long-distance business venture that would eventually fizzle out, but he didn’t let this stop him. He and Karin began to develop a business plan and eventually Boost by Design would come to life.
The Atkinsons have a diverse range of skills between the pair. Their ability to work as a team, cast a vision and see it come to fruition has been something they’ve done numerous times. These skills and gifts have played a huge role in their involvement with United Way. Taking risks in business has not always been easy, but through the growing pains and successes they found their niche and used all their gifts to established a web design, internet marketing and branding business that has propelled them into new directions here in the Coastal Empire.
Not long after establishing Boost by Design in 2012, Atkinson got word in 2013 that United Way was to open an office in Bryan County. He immediately reached out to Area Director Kristi Cox and invited her to speak at Rotary.
That Rotary meeting would lead Atkinson to his first local role as board member. That very day upon meeting Cox a connection was made and they have been teaming up since. Now in 2016, Atkinson is wearing four different UW hats; Bryan County board member, Campaign chairman, Board for the Coastal Empire and the Vision Council, which is his favorite role.
"The Vision Council is where you get to see the good that United Way does," he said. "You get to see where the money goes and the lives are impacted. We get to look at what the investment did and the stories you read are amazing. The impact is tremendous."
The 2016 campaign ends Nov. 15 and with the hurricane setbacks, it will be tight. The goal was set at $150,000 and the campaign has taken in an estimated $116,500 to date, reaching 78 percent of the initial goal.
With a background in marketing, business and sales, Atkinson sees how all those business ventures and experiences led him to United Way. He hopes as a community we will all see that our time or treasure can all make an impact. We need simply to do something and "Be the One."