United Way is ‘saving babies,’ ‘fighting ogres’

Published 9:50 am Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The story goes that a villager, while strolling alongside a peaceful river, discovered a baby floating in the water.

It quickly became obvious to the villager that the infant was alone, so he immediately jumped into the water and pulled the baby to safety.

Assessing his options, he looked back to the water, only to see three more babies floating along. Again, he jumped in and brought the babies to safety. But the babies would not stop coming, and before long there were scores of them floating down the river.

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The man rushed back to his village and called out to his neighbors to help. As soon as they reached the river, they began to rescue the infants. Before too long, a small group left the rescue operations and set out for the head of the river.

Upon their arrival, they discovered the source of the problem — an ogre was tossing the babies into the river. The villagers realized that, as important as it was to rescue the babies from the river, it was just as important to get rid of the ogre.

This might seem like a silly story to some, but I believe it illustrates the work we, as United Way, are called to do in our communities. United Way of the River Cities has a rich history of addressing the needs of people in the region.

For many years, United Way’s approach was to direct dollars to services that assisted people with immediate needs, or who were in crisis. One could say it was a reactive approach, much like pulling babies out of the river.

Several years ago, in response to community needs, United Way embarked on a more proactive approach. We decided to deal with the ogre.

Most of the issues our communities struggle with every day are complex — substance abuse, lack of life preparation skills, and childhood obesity, to name just a few.

These issues cannot be addressed by only one organization or system, and are issues that will take years, not months, to solve.

To improve conditions in our communities and make the greatest impact, United Way must deal with the ogre, or the underlying issues that create these problems. Only when we begin to tackle them together can we achieve results.

United Way’s focus now is two-fold — continue to support safety net services to ensure that our most vulnerable citizens have their basic needs met, and invest in programs that keep people from reaching a crisis point in their lives.

While “the poor will always be with us” it would be wrong not to do everything we can to try to significantly reduce the number of people who struggle to meet their basic needs.

We know that we cannot solve the region’s problems on our own.

It must be done in partnership with health and human service agencies, the business community, local government, educational systems, neighborhoods, and other networks.

In the past, United Way’s primary role in the community was to meet a fundraising goal each year. That was our “end.” Today, our fundraising efforts are a means to an end.

Our primary role now is to create opportunities for a better life for all. When we do that, with your help, everybody wins!

Laura P. Gilliam is executive Director of the United Way of the River Cities. She can be reached at 820 Madison Avenue, Huntington, WV 25704, by phone at 304-523-8929. More information can be found online at www.unitedwayrivercities.org