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United Way to kick off campaign Sept. 9

When United Way of the Coastal Empire representatives go live on local TV at 5:30 p.m. Sept. 9 to kick off the organization’s 2021 campaign kickoff, they’ll release the dollar amount they hope to raise this fall. 

That it comes as the COVID 19 pandemic has again begun filling hospital beds in emergency rooms in Chatham, Effingham and Liberty counties – three of the four counties in UWCE territory – isn’t lost on those doing the fundraising.

After all, after 18 months of pandemic life, perhaps life’s biggest certainty for those who need help and those who try to provide it has been uncertainty.

“It’s been hard,” said Mary Fuller, who is area director of Bryan County’s United Way offices in Pembroke and Richmond Hill. “The majority of the people we’re hearing from needing assistance we haven’t heard from before. So we know the needs are increas-ing.

At the same time it’s harder to just get out and be more visible to donors and people are more financially insecure. If your job is uncertain you’re not as likely to feel comfortable donating.”

Still, there are those who step up and give year in and year out.

Organizations Fuller mentioned range from Bryan County Schools, the county’s largest employer, and Pembroke Advanced Communications to the Richmond Hill Publix.

Financial institutions such as Ameris Bank and Richmond Hill Bank on the south end of Bryan County, while First Bank of Coastal Georgia and The Heritage Bank in Pembroke are also among the county’s major United Way supporters through campaigns and fundraisers.

Last year, Higgins Place restaurant in Pembroke held a Dine United event and donated 10 percent of its proceeds. Fia Rua in Richmond Hill has done similar fundraisers, and Wednesday night, Debellation Brewery was set to hold an event to raise funds for UW as well.

“We have a lot of great donors,” Fuller said. “Our businesses have done lots of really great things, even small businesses who can’t afford to be big huge donors. Every little bit is appreciated.”

In her role, Fuller sees a side of the community that tends to get overlooked by marketing departments selling the good life to new residents, and she has data to show how United Way and its member agencies provide help to those in need in Georgia’s fastest growing county.

For example, the UWCE’s COVID Rapid Response Fund helped 62 households in Bryan with $62,237 in aid. Another $11,026 in financial assistance went to 45 households, and 35 households got help with transportation.

In all, Fuller said the Bryan County Service Center responded to 871 calls for help or connection to resources. The bulk were from people in need of either financial help with housing or utility bills, or hotel stays, or food.

Another statistic Fuller points to is from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD. It shows there are 12,365 households in Bryan County, and 30 percent of those, or 3,770, spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, Fuller said. Some 15 percent, or 1,180 homes, are spending more than 50 percent of their income on housing.

“These households don’t have enough saved to make it through crisis, because they’re spending much of their income on housing,” she said. “Some can’t even weather a crisis like they need new brakes on their cars, because they’re paying so much in housing costs.” In short, they could soon be knocking on United Way’s door looking for help.

That safety net – the United Way is responsible for using the money it raises to help nonprofit agencies that provide such crisis help as food and shelter and financial assistance – is “what we’re here to do,” Fuller said, as well as helping in times of disaster.

And, the UW works with agencies such as Family Connection and its director, Wendy Sims Futch, to make sure services aren’t duplicated while sharing staff and financial resources to stretch tight budgets. But those resources in a sense help fund reactions to problems. They’re part of the United Way’s mandate to “help stop the bleeding, but afterward they may still have the issue, so some of the work we’re doing right now is not just about giving financial assistance,” Fuller said.

To that end the United Way recently went through a strategic planning process and looked at ways to help people move to a point where they don’t need the United Way or other forms of assistance.

Fuller called them “four bold goals,” and they include a focus on child care, job training, financial knowledge and safe housing, including workforce housing for firefighters and teachers and health care workers who otherwise might not be able to afford a home in the county.

“Is there enough affordable quality child care? Do people have the training and experience to get a job that pays a livable wage? And we want to focus on financial stability and knowledge. Once you have money do you know how and what to do with it to be able to move forward out of poverty,” Fuller said. “And then there’s safe and stable housing. If you don’t have shelter over your head, you’re not stable and it takes away from your ability to move forward and thrive.” Last year, Fuller’s goal was to raise $200,000 – lowered from years past due to the pandemic – and donors gave $203,000.

Her campaign goal for this year is still under wraps, but if Fuller had a message to those on the fence about donating to United Way, it might be this.

“Some people might say people who are struggling cost taxpayers money every day, so why should they bother helping with anybody,” she said. “But it’s a tradeoff. You’re getting impacted one way or the other, so look at it as being involved in what’s happening in your community. The only way to make stronger communities is to make stronger individuals. That’s how connected we all are in this thing.”

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