WHEN IT comes to philanthropy, I have Dom Perignon aspirations on a Budweiser budget.
I fantasize about financing a year’s worth of meals for the hungry and building a new wing on to my favorite community arts center. I’d like to endow free college education for every kid in my neighborhood and provide rescue pet therapy for all the seniors. Yup, when I strike it rich, I plan to be that wacky old lady who gives it all away (after purchasing a supersweet Airstream trailer where I can live out my days next to my solar-powered aquaponic greenhouse, of course.)
In the meantime, I send off tiny donations to several dozen different causes every year, adding a few dollars here and there to keep the good works going. That’s a lotta stamps—though more often these days, clicks—and I’ve often thought about how convenient it would be if I could write one (relatively) impressive check to a single organization that would disperse it throughout the community where it’s needed most. Ya know, so ambitious philanthropists like myself can feel like ballers until our yachts come in.
Well, I may have developed some kind of glue-induced mental fog from licking envelopes because apparently there’s been such an entity around these parts for ages. Since 1938, the United Way of the Coastal Empire has welcomed donations big and small, funneling millions of dollars every year into dozens of non-profits spread out over Chatham, Effingham, Bryan and Liberty counties. One gift—whatever the amount—goes towards affordable housing, afterschool education, adult literacy, disaster relief, food pantries, homeless shelters, clothing closets, healthcare clinics, victim assistance, legal aid and a host of other support services that form a collaborative safety net for our most vulnerable citizens.
UWCE also gathers volunteers through Hands On Savannah and provides easy access to help with its “211” referral line, staffed by kind operators who can hook a person up with the right program and help navigate Savannah’s vast labyrinth of social services.
I feel like a real plebe that I’ve passed by that big thermometer fundraising sign on Drayton on my way downtown about a zillion times without registering the depth and breadth of its significance, but I suppose I can take solace that I’m not the only one.
“A lot of people have heard of United Way, but they don’t necessarily know what we do,” consoles Lisa Clark, UWCE’s VP of marketing, who likens the organization’s inimitable efforts to baking an invisible confection.
“We’re busy dealing with a lot of ingredients, but we can’t show you the cake.”
Yet there are plenty of folks who already know the recipe by heart, as I found out when I showed up to last week’s lunchtime UWCE Campaign Kick-off at the Civic Center. I figured I was heading to one of the upstairs conference rooms, but instead a cheerful throng of over a thousand swept me into the balloon-festooned MLK Arena, where the Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love rang in the occasion with “Mustang Sally” and other gorgeous golden oldies (nothing like a full horn section at noon to rev the spirit!)
Barbecue and sweet tea from Barnes were the great levelers in a crowd as impressively diverse as UWCE’s reach: Doctors and lawyers mingled with firefighters and educators, who along with bankers and bakers and maybe even a candlestick maker filled more than 70 tables set up on the massive floor. Did Disney on Ice even sell that many tickets on its last pass through town?
You’d have thought a post-cryogenic Walt himself had taken the stage from the whoops that went up when the lights went down, but that’s the kind of welcoming Savannah’s United Way groupies gave for Asbury Memorial’s Rev. Billy Hester, who graced the room with a blessedly inclusive opening prayer. The former Broadway performer-turned-spiritual leader also a shared a very personal connection with the cause: More than 50 years ago, this once shy boy with a speech impediment was first introduced to his potential oration skills at the Savannah Speech and Hearing Center, one of the 58 local agencies that benefit from local UWCE funding.
Each organization is vigorously vetted, and busy benefactors should know that every penny goes straight to needed services as all of UWCE’s administrative costs are covered by a 1955 endowment from former newspaper publisher Herschel V. Jenkins (aka, Head Baller Emeritus.)
Inclusion under the vast UWCE umbrella also bestows gravitas on a charity’s individual appeals.
“If an organization receives funding from United Way, it can then help them receive further local, regional and national funding,” explains marketing director Tommy Nickoloff.
“It’s basically a blue ribbon for them.”
The Civic Center audience clapped and hollered for clients of this year’s showcased charities, Abilities Unlimited, Family Promise of Effingham and Royce Learning Center, whose success stories were elicited talk-show style on a white couch by emcee Dare Dukes. In his introduction, Dukes invoked Civil Rights leader Bayard Rustin to brand UWCE’s crew of assertive do-gooders as “angelic troublemakers,” those in our community willing to step up and “fix the things that need fixing.”
Dukes is also the executive director of Deep Center, the nationally-recognized afterschool creative writing program that has grown its reach formidably with its slice of UWCE pie.
This year, the advanced writers of Deep’s Block by Block have gone beyond self-expression to focus their storytelling skills on their own neighborhoods, threading history with personal narrative to reflect and validate views of Savannah many of us might never know otherwise.
Poets Samuel Poole and Abreona Batts brought to the arena a taste of what’s to come at Deep’s West Side Block Party, rocking the pavement from the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum to Chatham Square this Sunday, Sept. 18. A celebration of art, music, food trucks and the literary magic of some seriously amazing young people, the block party will also feature the results of a research project conducted in collaboration with the Savannah Development and Renewal Authority, focusing on the I-16 flyover over MLK Blvd and its economic and social impacts on the surrounding west side neighborhoods. (Spoiler: everything is not awesome.)
That’s the kind of angelic troublemaking that can help effect positive change in every corner of the community, nudged by the quiet power of the United Way behind it.
Invisible cake or not, the zeros lit up bright and clear when campaign chair Kay Ford revealed this year’s UWCE fundraising goal of a whopping $8,338,000. That’s a shocking amount of money to raise by November 18, but this is a community of big shots, no?
Plenty of capital will come from big corporations and local businesses, but the rest depends on philanthropic neophytes like you and me.
Even if our donations are in the double digits, let us never doubt that a little goes a long way.