It was the silver anniversary for the United Way in Effingham County — but for its staff and others, it’s the beginning of a golden future.
The United Way of Effingham County marked 25 years since its formation with a reception at the Robert H. Demere Jr. Service Center, its home for the last seven years.
“The last 25 years have been nothing less than amazing,” said United Way of Effingham County area director Bonnie Dixon, the only day-to-day leader in the organization’s history. “I have great hope in knowing that there has been a fantastic foundation set here, and the next 25 years, the United Way of Effingham County will be nothing less than magnificent.”
The United Way, along with its staff, volunteers, supported agencies and former and current board members and volunteers, celebrated the anniversary and also reveled in its service center.
When the United Way took the keys to what became its home, it was more than a fixer-upper, according to Pratt Summers, the chairman of the United Way of the Coastal Empire’s board. Once built as a sewing factory, the building was turned into a kindergarten by the Effingham County Board of Education, “complete with child-sized fountains, sinks and toilets. That’s what we walked into when the United Way came in here,” he said.
As the building fell into disrepair from its lack of use, it was offered to the United Way. But, as Summers pointed out, “it was going to need some work.”
The air conditioning didn’t always work, the roof leaked, the electrical system was not up to code and the building’s new purpose didn’t match with the building’s interior walls. These issues were brought up to the Effingham advisory board and after an architectural study, the building could be turned into something of use at a cost $250,000.
“So in 2008, the United Way of Effingham County service center went through a massive renovation to become the facility you see today,” Summers said.
That need, Summers said, was passed on to Demere of the Colonial Group, and the company’s leader quietly donated $150,000. The United Way of the Coastal Empire secured the remaining $100,000 with a loan. The building was rechristened as the Robert H. Demere Jr. Service Center.
The building is now home to more than just the United Way — it houses Hospice Savannah’s Full Circle, Savannah Speech and Hearing Center, Medbank, East Georgia Counseling Services, Katie McGrory Child Play Therapy, the Effingham Community Orchestra and VFW Post 12149.
Dixon plans to retire in six months, turning the keys of the United Way over to assistant director Julie Dickey. She recalled the original group that coalesced to bring the United Way to Effingham County — Ruth Lee, Gussie Nease, Rebecca Boston, Norma Jean Morgan and Charles Hartzog and the late Hilton Kight and Joe Arden.
“They did not know the word ‘no,’” Dixon said. “These are the ones who sought the very much needed health and human services programs for residents of Effingham County.
“They stepped up and approached the United Way of Coastal Empire about Effingham becoming a part of their organization. Because of their compassion, we have a full service United Way center here in Effingham County.”
Under Dixon’s direction, the United Way of Effingham County has raised more than $5.5 million. Though she still has a ways to go before she hangs it up, Dixon drew praise from United Way of the Coastal Empire president and CEO Gregg Schroder, who also read a letter from state Sen. Jack Hill
“You have truly been steadfast in your leadership to provide resources to those in need in Effingham County,” Hill’s letter read. “Your 25 years of service have seen wonderful advancements in United Way in Effingham County.”
“She delivers every year on her goals and objectives,” Schroeder said. “Her work ethic and her commitment to the organization and what I put above all else is her integrity, and that’s what it takes to be a leader.”
The United Way’s success can be attributed greatly to the annual fundraising campaign and the loaned associates who help spearhead the effort, according to Dixon.
“I truly thank God for them,” she said. “They are lifesavers. These are the people who got out and knocked on doors and made phone calls and got the campaign going. That is a job in itself. They leave us not as loaned associates but they leave us not as loaned associates but as part of our family.”
Dixon paid particular honors to Georgia-Pacific’s Savannah River Mill, which has tasked two of its employees the last several years to assist with the annual campaign.
“They send us their best and brightest employees to serve as loaned associates,” she said of Georgia-Pacific. “They raise right at 50 percent of our donations, and that’s remarkable.”
Dixon also complimented the United Way of Effingham County staff for their often unseen and never-ending work.
“This staff, they are absolutely amazing,” she said. “They hold me back when I need to be held back. They lift me up when I need to be lifted up. They are some of the most remarkable, most compassionate people I know. It’s more than a five-day-a-week job. They truly carry it with them 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
Even after 25 years, Dixon said it’s still a challenge to explain to people what the United Way can and can’t do. But, she added, there is no question about its impact.
“The services we offer to people here make our community stronger,” she said. “Once you explain that, with being able to make our community healthy and stronger, with a little bit of donations from a lot of people, it works.”
Affiliating with the United Way of the Coastal Empire, which thanks to the Herschel V. Jenkins endowment doesn’t need to direct any of its donations toward administrative costs, also has been a tremendous help, Dixon said.
“I don’t know if I had this big a vision 25 years ago,” she said. “Maybe we could bring a couple of agencies up from Savannah. It worked out where we had this wonderful facility. These great agencies wanted to come to Effingham. They just needed a place. We built it. And they came.
“Having that connection has been the most value, with the clout they bring. We couldn’t stand alone and do it.”
Summers, who along with his wife has been an Effingham resident for 22 years, alluded to the work of so many who have made the United Way the success it is.
“I want to thank all of you who are here today,” he said, “because I know you wouldn’t be here if you were not ardent supporters of the United Way. It is through all of our individual contributions that we can touch the lives of others in Effingham County and in the greater Coastal Empire.”