More than 25 nonprofit organizations in Lee County rely on funds from the United Way of Lee County — an organization that generates and applies resources to meet the needs of the local community — which kicked off its annual fundraising campaign late last week.

The campaign will last through the year and mobilizes dozens of volunteers and hundreds of businesses, who collect donations and conduct employee drives, respectively.

"It's the community giving back to help the community," said Becky Benton, executive director of United Way.

This year's campaign is Benton's 23rd working with United Way. She was first introduced to the organization when she was a young teacher, she said, and would contribute a small amount through the school system's employee drive.

"I made my little donation because I thought that was the thing to do; everybody else was doing that ... But I think if I'd have had the opportunity to know (United Way) was feeding people who were hungry, protecting children who were abused, that it had food for seniors so they wouldn't have to decide if they were going to have food or get their medications, I would have been a much more generous giver," she said. "I would have known what the organization did."

Through a tedious process, United Way vets local nonprofits and determines which agencies it will partner with, or supply funding to from money raised during its annual campaign. Nonprofits that apply are asked to provide certain information, which volunteers comb through and discuss over a four-day period before organizing an on-site visit to ask in-depth questions and become more familiarized with the nonprofit.

The nonprofits that qualify to be a United Way agency must meet certain requirements, Benton said.

"Agencies have to be a 501(c)(3) — recognized by the federal government as a nonprofit," she said. "Then, we want to see what kind of stewards they've been of money in the past, how did they use their funds. We're looking at the percentage of what their overhead (cost) is. In showing their stewardship, we want to make sure no one is above 25 percent in overhead."

Once United Way partners with a nonprofit, a portion of monies raised in the annual campaign is distributed to that agency, based on what their needs are.

Only one penny to every dollar goes back to United Way, for things like training and materials.

United Way agencies address four different categories of need in the community — education, health, families and community, and crisis and include organizations like Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Lee County, Food Bank of East Alabama, Domestic Violence Intervention Center, East Alabama Services for the Elderly, Lee County Autism Resource and Advocacy and Sheriffs Girls Ranch, among many others.

"Our reach is very broad in that our programs go from childcare to elder care and then so much in between," Benton said. "We look at four major impact areas — education, helping children succeed, fostering health and independence in our elderly citizens and helping those with handicap conditions be able to find employment and having training for them, then helping in times of crisis ... Then the last component is strengthening families and the community as a whole with either parenting programs or programs like 2-1-1 to help families know about different resources that are available."

When it comes to crises, Benton said United Way chips in to help organizations that tackle disasters regularly, but that this year has seen additional needs because of the tornadoes in early spring. The United Way provided assistance for victims by establishing a Volunteer Reception Center out in Smiths Station.

"The majority of time we're talking about food insecurity, domestic violence, child abuse, and of course with this year, we saw so much more with the tornadoes in Beauregard and Smiths Station, so that added for those (agencies) that normally do disaster relief, like Salvation Army and Red Cross."

This year, United Way is aiming to exceed $925,000 through its campaign. Businesses interested in conducting employee donation drives or in donating can email campaign manager Kimberly Myers at kimberly@unitedwayofleecounty.com. 

"With United Way, it really is the community fund. It's working for the betterment of the whole community," Benton said. "We don't ask a lot from any one, but it takes some from everyone to make the whole system work."

For more information about United Way or to read about each of the 27 United Way agencies, visit unitedwayofleecounty.com.

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