Don’t turn back on local needs: United Way deserves support as much as hurricane victims

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How do you compete with Hurricane Katrina?

For three weeks, we have been inundated by images of suffering and devastation on the Gulf Coast. In the midst of it all, United Way of Central Indiana has struggled to attract attention to the kickoff of its annual campaign.

It’s a tough sell, just as it was four years ago when another horrific event-the 9/11 terrorist attacks-coincided with the campaign kickoff.

“It took the fund-raising community about three years to recover from 9/11, and that’s what we’re trying to avoid,” said Barbara Wright, director of development for Second Helpings Inc., a local food-rescue, job-training and hunger-relief organization.

Hurricane relief is a compelling cause, indeed; but so is the United Way. Consider this:

The Red Cross and the Salvation Army, two organizations on the front line of hurricane assistance, are United Way agencies. Without the United Way’s past support, those groups might not be helping so many hurricane victims today.

Local officials expect to accommodate as many as 2,000 Gulf Coast evacuees here, so the local campaign lets you give locally and globally at the same time.

Those evacuees will need the services of a variety of local groups, points out Debbie Russell, director of development for Horizon House, a day center for the homeless, which receives 15 percent of its funding from the United Way.

“Agencies like Horizon House are going to have to be there to support these victims,” she said. “This isn’t going to be a short-term thing.”

Besides, hurricane victims aren’t the only ones suffering. Men right here can’t find jobs because they lack education and skills. Women right here die prematurely because they don’t have access to preventive health care. Children right here go to bed in shelters or on the street because their families can’t afford decent housing.

There are fewer deep pockets than there used to be. Of the 10 largest local public companies in 1995, eight have folded, gone into bankruptcy, or been sold to outof-town interests. When large donors go away, it takes many donations from the rest of us to pick up the slack.

The United Way does much more than pull money in and push it out. (See our special report on the annual campaign, beginning on page1A.) The organization assesses community needs, so donations go where they can do the most good. The United Way monitors how funds are used, so you know your donations are being spent wisely. And the United Way offers assistance far beyond dollars to its member agencies. It provides visibility in the community, training and technical support, among other services.

The United Way works on root causes. Mark Desmond, CEO of United Way of Metropolitan Nashville in Tennessee, put it this way in an IBJ story last year:

“There are always people who need a food basket. But why are they hungry? What’s going on there? Can we get together as a community and do something about it?”

Yes, we can. And you can help. Contribute to the campaign at your workplace, or contact the United Way at community@uwci.orgor 923-1466.

Because Katrina is not the only crisis in town.

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