Do the Most Good for the Most People
Organization helps 43 different agencies provide services to Emerald Coast residents

By Kelly Humphrey
315-4443 | @Kellyhnwfdn khumphrey@nwfdailynews.com

During the 2016 Fort Walton Beach Day of Caring, volunteers from Northwest Florida State College helped spruce up the United Way office. SPECIAL TO THE DAILY NEWS

Sunshine Hope”, the mascot for this year’s United Way campaign, is pictured at the Kick-off event with Board of Directors Campaign Chair Alan Wood, right, and members of the Booker family.

Want to learn more?
If you would like more information about the United Way of Okaloosa and Walton Counties, call 850-243-0315 or visit www.united-way.org.

This has been a year of transition for the United Way of Okaloosa and Walton Counties.
In April, Rick Owen took over as the president and CEO of the organization upon the retirement of Ken Hinrichs. Last month, the agency lost its longtime vice president for development, Ronda Davenport, who passed away following a valiant battle with cancer.

“Our community is mourning the loss of the United Way matriarch, Ronda Davenport,” Owen said. “While her memory will endure, we recognize that the organization must continue to move forward as the needs in the community do not stop, or even pause.”

One of Davenport’s last actions while at work was to encourage Owen to hire Cindy Holmes for a vacant part-time position. When Davenport became ill, Holmes stepped up to fill in as the interim resource director, and has recently been selected to take over the role.

In the face of change, the organization’s mission remains the same: Do the most good for the most people.

“The United Way … represents the very essence of what it means to help the least fortunate in our community,” Owen said. “As most already know, the United Way conducts a massive annual fundraising campaign, mostly through payroll deduction pledges, that allows us to spotlight to employees at numerous … businesses the important services provided by our 43 member charities. These donations will provide needed funds to help sustain operations at these agencies.”

Wide array of services
In the age of social media, Owen finds that many people question the idea of giving to a parent organization like the United Way when they can make a donation directly to a cause online. He explains that the organization provides annual evaluations of the agencies who partner with the United Way, ensuring that donations are being well spent to help local people in need.

“One in four people (in our community) will be touched by the United Way annually,” he added.
This year’s fundraising campaign kicked off in August. The organization hopes to raise $1.45 million — $115,000 more than the $1.335 million it raised last year.

The 43 agencies that benefit from the campaign provide a wide array of services to the community, including health care services, emergency financial assistance, child welfare, education, housing and assistance to the hungry and the elderly. In addition to its annual campaign, the United Way hosts an annual gala that brings the community together for an evening of fun and to help those in need. This year’s gala, which has a “Groovy 60s” theme, is set for Saturday, Jan. 28 at the Hilton Sandestin.
The United Way has six full-time employees and relies heavily on volunteers. A group of hard-working “loaned executives” — local leaders whose time is “lent” by their employers to the United Way temporarily during the annual campaign — represent the organization at businesses and other employers throughout the area. Their job is to explain what the United Way is all about, and help potential donors sign up for payroll deduction or to make a one-time donation. “Our campaign is such a large undertaking — we couldn’t do it without our loaned executives,” Owen said.

Year-round activities
While helping to raise money for the partner agencies is the United Way’s primary goal, it conducts activities throughout the year that help local people in need.

The organization’s annual Coats for Kids drive is finishing up Monday. Coats for Kids has collection sites throughout Okaloosa and Walton counties where people can donate new or “gently used” coats and jackets to help keep children warm this winter.

Starting in January, the organization will sponsor the Volunteer Tax Assistance program, which provides free tax aid to low- and moderate-income families. Volunteers can be found in area libraries and other public locations.

In May, the organization distributes its annual “Children’s Summer Fun Guidebook,” which lists activities that children can participate in when school is out. Around Mother’s Day, the United Way partners with local postal employees for the annual National Letter Carriers Stamp Out Hunger food drive.

In August, the organization sponsors its “Cram the Van” school supply drive to ensure local children have all the tools they need to head back to school.

Throughout the month of September, United Way volunteers take part in five “Day of Caring” events in Crestview, Fort Walton Beach, Niceville, Destin and DeFuniak Springs. During each Day of Caring, local nonprofits and schools receive assistance with projects like painting, tree trimming and site cleanups.

“Through engagement with our agencies, as well as local leaders in fields of education and health, we identify areas in the community that need more focused attention, and find the resources to help,” Owen said. “In this way, the United Way truly represents the leadership that makes a difference in the community that cannot be matched by any single organization.”