September 12, 2012 1:43:57 PM
Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]
They showed up with paintbrushes and brooms, pressure washers and rakes. But mostly, the volunteers arrived Tuesday with willing hands and open hearts, ready to serve in whatever capacity they were needed.
The United Way of Lowndes County held its annual "Day of Service" Tuesday morning, with 160 volunteers helping local service agencies with tasks they often either don't have the manpower, equipment or spare change to handle themselves.
The agencies, drawn from the 19 which United Way funds, submitted a list of work needs several weeks ago, and so many volunteers responded, more projects were added.
At Greater Columbus Learning Center, on Military Road, officers with the Columbus Police Department trimmed crape myrtles and added a fresh coat of paint to the building's awning and recreation areas.
This is the second year the department has chosen GCLC for its service project -- a choice infused with personal meaning for the officers, CPD Capt. Fred Shelton said, as he slapped thick coats of brown paint on a picnic table.
Most people come to GCLC to earn their GEDs, but others come to prepare for tests like the ACT or to brush up on reading, math and language skills. Courses are also offered in English as a Second Language.
The GED students, in particular, inspired Shelton and his crew of four Tuesday to do whatever they could to improve the site's aesthetics. Maybe a more pleasant environment will encourage potential students to inquire about classes. Maybe it will encourage current students to stay the course until their diploma is in hand, they rationalize.
Statistics have proven a clear-cut connection between dropout rates and criminal activity. Many of those dropouts end up in prison, where they are given opportunities to further their education, but many -- especially young black men -- fail to take advantage of them, Shelton said.
Making Columbus a better place, giving back to the community, fulfills the officers' mission to protect and serve.
"This is a personal treat to us, because we're serving people trying to make something of their lives and become more productive citizens," Shelton said. "We want to keep them coming back."
Their efforts are appreciated, GCLC Director Darren Jordan said, watching the building's faded awning disappear beneath fresh, wet paint.
The center served 713 students last year. So far this year, 600 students have passed through the doors, and 116 have earned their GEDs.
The United Way funds local organizations that provide a wide range of services, from helping children and the elderly to aiding in crisis intervention and disaster relief.
Every year, United Way holds a "Day to Care," linking volunteers with agencies for a half-day of community service, but this year, United Way Executive Director Jan Ballard decided to make it a "Day of Service" to correlate with President Barack Obama's call to service as a way to honor and remember the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
At noon Tuesday, United Way held a luncheon at Trotter Convention Center to thank volunteers and kick off this year's community-wide fundraising campaign, which will run through Thanksgiving.
Pacesetters -- local businesses and organizations which volunteered to get the campaign started with a two-month mini-campaign -- were also recognized.
Through the efforts of businesses like T.E. Lott and Company, which had 100 percent employee participation in the campaign, United Way has surpassed last year's Pacesetters' donations, raising $89,455 so far.
The mini-campaign sets the tone for the community campaign, giving organizers a feel for how the national economic picture is influencing the local business community, Ballard said.
She is encouraged by this year's contributions.
BankFirst Financial Services increased their contribution by 89 percent, and Contact Helpline increased employee contributions by 74 percent. Belk department store, 4-County Electric Power Association and Regions Bank also increased employee contributions. Final numbers are not yet in for Weyerhaeuser Co., Paccar and Severstal Columbus.
This year's campaign goal has not yet been set, but $522,235 was raised last year. The majority of the funds -- 99.9 percent -- stay within Lowndes County.
"It is our community coming together as a whole to ensure (the organizations United Way funds) are able to perform services on the level they do," Ballard said. "We had such a successful Day of Service and a great Pacesetter campaign. We're very optimistic about the fall campaign that just kicked off."
Making a difference
Father's Child Ministry, founded and led by Edward Yeates, is one of the newest recipients of United Way funding. The money enables him to continue his mission of helping the children of absentee fathers, he said, but the support also serves as a beacon of encouragement.
"Every drop, every brick in the wall, makes a difference," Yeates said.
Glenn Lautzenhiser, board member for the Columbus Municipal School District, spoke during Tuesday's luncheon, telling the 225 attendees -- mainly campaign contributors, community leaders, volunteers and service agency employees -- that hope is the one thing people cannot live without.
"Columbus is a better place to live, work and raise a family because of what you are doing," he said. "And I would encourage you to continue to make a difference and continue to set the bright light, because you may be the only person who comes into that person's life who will make a difference and help them see the hope."
For more information about the agencies United Way funds, or to make a campaign contribution, visit unitedwaylowndescounty.org.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.