My Turn: What if there was no one to help?

Posted: Sunday, October 07, 2001

What's the hardest thing you've ever done? There are so many ways to answer that question. For me, at 49 and rising at 3:26 a.m. after tossing and turning for an hour, it's trying to find the right way to "teach the joy of giving." The name fund-raising seems inappropriate when the old ways seemed to disappear with so many other things on Sept. 11. Balloons, parties, kickoff events ... they seem frivolous now. What hasn't disappeared is that United Way of Southeast Alaska has the privilege, the responsibility and obligation to be an important funding source for 28 nonprofit health and human service organizations helping people throughout Southeast. That's weighty and the load is felt. In the minds of many, United Way is mercenary. But we're really not here just to collect money. We're here to collect help. It's about helping people. And we're here to be a partner to our community.

For some, generosity is a behavior that's part of everyday life, food drives, collection plates, ringing bells and hanging red buckets, outgrown clothing, nearly new shoes and that green chair all naturally find a second life with an appreciative recipient. For others, there is skepticism about giving. Will it really make a difference? We can't change the world! I wonder how much actually gets to the people? All valid concerns, which we are proud to address and answer, if we're given the chance.

People are inundated with requests for help, both for their time and money. Businesses receive lots of calls for donations. It's no wonder some become callused and may not take the time to listen or see the changes in our local United Way. I could spout off numbers about statistical increases in need. But it's not about numbers. Behind every number, there is a face.

The events of Sept. 11 confirmed that the unexpected might call at anyone's door in ways we least expect it. No one plans to wake up at 2 a.m. with their home in flames or for the diagnosis to be terminal when they still have a family to raise and a life to live. If people expected to be abused, would they really become involved with the person? Wouldn't it be great if all families were functional and intact? Have you ever been hungry, really, really hungry and there was no food? What if you had no home? What if you had no home and had children? It's getting cold outside. Can you imagine having to ask for help and there was none? That's what convinces me that United Way is an issue of the heart, not the wallet.

National statistics bear out that the largest givers are not highly paid executives but those who can least afford it. Is that true in Southeast Alaska? A few weeks ago in one of our communities, an hourly employee of a retail establishment signed up to have $50 taken from each paycheck $100 per month. The company volunteer running the United Way campaign thought he had misunderstood and called it to his attention. With a soft voice and firm commitment he explained, "when I needed help they were there for me. I lived in the shelter until I got my life back on track. I want to do that for someone else." It's not tokenism that is needed for some unknown face. It's a helping hand for a fellow human, a person like you and me. We cannot predict the future nor control every aspect of our lives. It's a certainty that no one will leave this world without needing help in some form or fashion. Something taken from each paycheck seems an easy and appropriate way to acknowledge that fact while making our community a better place for us all now.

Heroism has been discussed often of late, but it is not new. Those who support communities through United Way campaigns have long been seen and referred to as heroes. For providing meals for the homeless or homebound, shelter for the abused, counseling for the troubled or addicted, and positive preventive programs for our youth 365 days a year, surely qualifies as heroic.

The United Way board of directors, volunteer campaign workers, member agencies and I invite you to participate in our 2001 Campaign. Please call to schedule an employee presentation or make a donation.


Marsha Riley is the executive director of the United Way of Southeast Alaska. She can be reached at 463-5530 or

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