A large group of United Way staff and volunteers crowded into a gym at the local YMCA after having spent the earlier part of the day helping out at various locations around the community Friday.
It was the United Way of Bradley County’s “Day of Action,” and they were gathered for a lunch to kick off the nonprofit’s fundraising campaigns for the year as well as inspire each other to get out and help.
Art Rhodes, chairman of the board of the United Way, said the occasion marked the beginning of the organization’s 75th year in Bradley County.
The United Way assists numerous nonprofit organizations throughout the community, ranging from after-school programs like the Boys & Girls Clubs to disaster relief organizations like the Polk County Emergency Aid.
Early Friday morning, 12 teams of people representing six different local companies split up and took part in service projects throughout town. Between 90 and 100 people devoted their time, he said.
“They’ve spent this day becoming the hands of United Way in the community,” Rhodes said.
Matt Ryerson, president of the local United Way, highlighted and thanked the teams that helped out, including Life Care Centers of America, P&G/Duracell, Target, Whirlpool, Ace Hardware and Cleveland Utilities.
Although the “Day of Action” kicked off United Way fundraising efforts for many teams for the year, Ryerson said several “pace setters” had already completed their fundraising campaigns for the year.
Ryerson said he expected some people might be unhappy they weren’t invited to take part in the “Day of Action,” but he said the idea for the event actually came from the companies taking part in it.
“We didn’t invite anybody,” Ryerson said. “That’s the spirit of this community.”
He said the United Way was actually considering having a “Day of Action” that would allow everyone in the community to take part. In the meantime, he said the organization’s new online volunteer website is a good way to get connected with needs in the community.
The United Way’s online volunteer center, which can be found at www.volunteerocoee.org, allows organizations to post their needs so volunteers help.
“It’s a great and easy way to get connected,” Ryerson said.
Lesley Scearce, president of OnPoint, said her organization, which works with schools through a program that teaches the importance of making good life choices and avoiding risky behavior, was concerned with making sure youth grew up to be successful adults.
Scearce explained how she once had the chance to visit Africa and learned one of the native tribes there, the Maasai, had an interesting way of saying hello to each other.
Instead of asking each other how they were, she said people would ask, “How are the children?”
That got her thinking, she said.
“What would life be like in our culture if every morning started with that question?” she asked.
She said she wondered if we could answer the question positively because American youth are seeing too many teen pregnancies, acts of violence, high school dropouts and other negative things.
Scearce said people often ask her if OnPoint helps at-risk youth. She told the audience that she often says no.
“There are no at-risk youth,” she said. “All youth are at risk.”
To illustrate her point, she had some previously-enlisted volunteers help her with an illustration.
Patrick Long, vice president of development strategies for the United Way, posed as a ninth-grade student.
Scearce interviewed him about all the obstacles he as a high school freshman might have been facing.
Then, volunteers wearing signs taped to their shirts that showed “assaults” on a young person’s life lined up to explain how they attacked. For example, “underage drinking” would encourage the ninth-grader to take part in other negative behaviors.
After that, volunteers wearing “assets” like “supportive family members” and “after-school programs” shared how they could help.
The “assaults” volunteers began “attacking” Long by throwing wads of paper at him. When they did, the “assets” circled him and blocked the aims of the “assaults.”
She said adults could help change the trajectory of how a young person’s life might go by being an asset to them. As “assaults” teamed up to attack the ninth-grader in her illustration, the “assets” teamed up to protect him.
Scearce encouraged everyone in attendance to make themselves assets to those around them, much as United Way’s partners do every day.
The second speaker was Joe Smith, regional director of the Y-CAP program.
“This side of eternity, you won’t know the difference you made this morning,” he said.
Y-CAP is an after-school intervention and prevention program for teens who are referred to it from the juvenile court or local school systems. It helps local youth who have come from varied backgrounds, some coming from low socioeconomic backgrounds or families where a parent is in prison, he said.
“We don’t have to go to the other side of the world to find people hurting,” Smith said.
He said everyone there had tools they could use to help others. As he stood onstage, he pulled out a red toolbox with brightly colored pieces of paper inside. On them were written things like “honesty” and “compassion.”
The most important one was compassion, he said.
Smith said he grew up learning from his father, whom he referred to as a “very compassionate man.” He was the sort who would mow neighbor’s lawns for them while they were out of town and tell his children not to tell anyone who did it.
He said seeing his father doing things like that taught him he could help others and a person could use whatever he had at his disposal to offer help.
In fact, the Baptist pastor said the best Christian ministry tool he has found so far has been an expected one — a washing machine. Having met people who did not own washing machines and could not afford to frequent laundromats, he said he has let some use his machine. While the clothes were in the wash, he would tell people about God.
Smith said he had the opportunity to go to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China, as the team manager of the U.S. Olympic Boxing team.
As he and other Americans walked into the stadium for the opening ceremony, they were told to look for their country’s leaders in the stands. Instead of focusing just on President George W. Bush, he said he envisioned the stands being filled with everyone who had helped him get to where he was.
He said he wanted to remind his audience of the need to get out and help other people – even if it does not seem like much of a difference is being made at the time.
He also said everyone needed to invest in other people’s lives on a daily basis — not just on the “Day of Action.”
“We may not have a clue whose lives we’re influencing, but we’re sitting in somebody’s stadium,” Smith said.