'We need help': One family's plight shows how United Way agencies make a difference

December 4, 2010 10:15:00 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


Sherrie and David Roberts didn''t know at first what to do or where to turn. A health problem that began during Sherrie''s last pregnancy two years ago had steadily gotten worse, but David''s construction job fell victim to a hemorrhaging economy. There was no regular income, and certainly no insurance. 


"It all hit us pretty hard," admitted Sherrie, hugging close her two sons, Matthew, 2, and Jared, 3.  


As the issue became increasingly severe, the 38-year-old knew she had to seek medical help. A visit to the Pioneer Family Medical Clinic in Caledonia resulted in a referral to a urologist. But, that''s when the figures overwhelmed the couple. 


"The first visit would be $250 to even be seen (by the urologist)," recalled Sherrie. It was money the Roberts didn''t have. "I talked to my pastor, Ben Butler at First United Methodist Church in Caledonia, and he told me about Helping Hands." 




More than food 


Widely-known for its food pantry, Helping Hands, a United Way of Lowndes County agency, can also offer emergency help -- such as mortgage, rent, utilities, prescriptions and medical assistance -- as funds permit. 


"We offer a hand up, not a hand out," said Helping Hands Executive Director Nancy Guerry. "Our perception is that when people come in to see us, they are faced with an immediate crisis that, if it''s resolved, they''re going to be able to move forward." 


A significant portion of the non-profit agency''s funding comes from community support to the annual United Way campaign nearing its end -- and still about 35 percent short of its $600,000 goal.  


"We''re at a critical point in our campaign," said Jan Ballard, United Way executive director. "We''re very grateful for the increases in some of our employee campaigns and corporate gifts, but we''re still dealing with a deficit as a result of closures and layoffs." 


In Sherrie''s case, Helping Hands was able to underwrite her initial visit to the specialist. But then, diagnostic tests to determine the extent of her problem carried a price tag of about $1,500.  


"With no insurance and no money coming in, I knew there was no way. I asked for payment plans, just anything. I said, ''Thank you for seeing me the first time, but I don''t see any way,''" Sherrie said, with emotion. "When I heard the amount, my first response was, ''Oh, God, what am I going to do? It''s in your hands.''" 




A lifeline 


The miracle, as far as Sherrie is concerned, materialized when Helping Hands was able to fund the lion''s share of the necessary tests, with additional assistance coming from other sources her pastor was able to marshal, plus a love offering from Sherrie''s sister''s church in Memphis, Tenn. 


The Roberts didn''t find it easy asking for help, but the long-ailing economy has put them in uncharted territory. David, 52, suffers effects from a lawn mower injury as a teen that had him in the hospital for months, doctors fearing he would never walk again. He lost a kidney, still has a piece of wire lodged near his spine, and deals with worsening arthritis, triggered by the accident. 


"I''m supposed to wear braces on both my arms, for arthritis," said David. "This has been a hard time." 


"It was very difficult to ask for help," his wife stated. "But having two little ones will make you suck up your personal problems, and you''ll ask for anything, whatever embarrassment you might have. When it comes to feeding them and clothing them, you''ll do what you need to take care of them. ... We needed help." 




New faces 


The Roberts are not alone. Almost every other United Way agency has seen a notable increase in applicants because of the recession. Many have lost jobs, or had their hours cut. "We''re seeing a lot of people that have never asked for help before, never thought they''d have to ask for help," Guerry said. "We''re seeing people with degrees, and they can''t find work." 


Ballard noted that many "did everything right, including saving." But, over months, they have reached the end of their resources.  


One revealing barometer of the need Helping Hands is seeing comes by way of something as commonplace as file folders. 


"Twenty-one years ago, when we first started, they gave us a whole lot of office supplies, lots of folders. We just kept recycling them (for applicants) and we''ve never had to buy folders -- until this year," Guerry said ruefully. "We have that many new people. That tells us something." 




One gift, wide impact 


More than any single cause, giving to United Way supports the entire community.  


Ballard said, "There are literally thousands of Lowndes County residents served each year by local United Way agencies. People who aren''t familiar with us and our mission are often surprised to learn about the broad scope of services we fund, from Dial a Bus and Home Delivered Meals, to American Red Cross, Helping Hands, The Salvation Army and Contact Helpline."  


In addition to those, she added, the agency funds youth programs that provide life skills, after-school programs and adult literacy classes, as well as services for the homeless and programs that transform recovering alcohol and drug addicts into citizens that add to, and not take away from, the community. 




You can help 


It''s easier then ever to give, through the online option at www.unitedwaylowndescounty.org. In addition, pledge forms and other information about United Way and its outreach can be printed out. The United Way office is located at 501 Seventh St. N., Suite Five. Ballard and the staff welcome inquiries at 662-328-0943.  


A generous year-end response from a caring public and business community can push the campaign to its goal. For many more people like the Roberts, it may make all the difference. 


"I don''t know what we would have done without family, God, church and Helping Hands," said Sherrie, who is scheduled for more treatment this week. "It was unbelievable that there was somebody out there to help a stranger that needed it. ... It felt like a miracle."

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.