Nearly two-thirds of the way through United Way of Northeast Georgia's annual campaign, the news is good.
The agency that helps charities in eight Athens-area counties is slightly ahead of last year in the quest to raise $2.2 million. One county - Oconee - already has bested its goal for the year.
"I just think people really realize that times are tough - even tougher for our agencies," said Susan St. Charles, marketing associate for the local United Way.
"People gave last year, and they really saw where their donations help."
As the economy continued to falter, more people turned to United Way agencies or heard friends and family tell about how they got help, she said.
"They are seeing that everybody has a connection with a United Way agency. If they haven't used one of the services, someone in their immediate family is," St. Charles said.
Despite job losses, United Way also hasn't seen much of a dip in payroll deductions, St. Charles said. About 73 percent of the agency's contributions come from donors who have the money directly withdrawn from their paychecks. And a few new donors have joined the ranks, such as the students at Hilsman Middle School, who collected $800 in a penny war, St. Charles said.
United Way agencies need the money now more than ever to offset the loss of state funding and to use to leverage federal grants.
"We like to help agencies that help themselves," St. Charles said.
The Athens Area Council on Aging does that, turning every dollar of United Way funding into $9 more through matching grants.
"This campaign means a tremendous amount to our agency," said Jennie Deese, executive director of the Council on Aging, which serves 12 counties in the region. "We receive a lot of federal grants that require state or local funds to draw down. If we didn't have United Way funding, we couldn't draw down on the money and could serve fewer people."
While the state slashed the council's funding by 26 percent, the agency has made up for the cuts through local donations and federal grants.
Deese has noticed how generous people are during tough economic times and also has seen volunteerism increase.
People have more time on their hands, she said, but not necessarily because they lost a job. Many volunteers are recent retirees who are finished with a career, but still want worthwhile work.
"Athens is a generous place," Deese said.
People who want to make a tax-deductible donation by the end of the year can contact the United Way office at (706) 543-5254 or visit www.unitedwaynega.org.Originally published in the Athens Banner-Herald on Monday, November 30, 2009
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