‘Day of Action’ Was A Lifesaver For These 11 Nonprofits — and Southern Virginia Families

United Way volunteers take part in a socially distanced Day of Action. Contributed photo.

By Amie Knowles

November 30, 2020

Virginia group launched a campaign to help the community.

MARTINSVILLE – COVID-19 hit Southern Virginia hard. While many families struggled to make ends meet, those most vulnerable were the ones barely on their feet.

Knocked down by illness or the economy, some people who worked for every penny found themselves jobless, penniless and ultimately homeless. Unfortunately, COVID-19 wiped away the years of progress people made.

That’s when the United Way of Henry County and Martinsville stepped in to help. Together with partner organizations, the United Way connected community members with services that addressed hunger, homelessness, domestic violence, substance abuse counseling and childcare and more.

“I think a couple of the things we’ve seen, particularly though programs we’re working on is increased food insecurity. There’s a great local group of organizations that are trying to expand feeding capacity, thanks to some funding provided by the Harvest Foundation, as well as the city and county, to try to expand available resources to those that are in need, as well as trying to shift those services around a little bit to make them as touch-free as possible,” said Philip Wenkstern, United Way executive director.

The organization chose to assist those expressing a need for help.

“A lot of what that has resulted in, is if you want to cut down on interactions, risks and things of that nature, then you’re probably not going to be able to collect quite as much information, and you’re certainly not going to be able to assess things as need-based,” Wenkstern said. “So essentially, what we’ve looked at doing, is primarily if someone says they’re hungry, we’re going to provide them food.”

Pandemic raises problems

In addition to feeding those in need, the organization also assists with childcare options. Working parents with children oftentimes can’t miss a paycheck, but when schools reverted to remote learning during the pandemic, it left many families with limited options.

“I think that when you look at how precarious progress is for so many families, something as little as a flat tire could really derail progress. So when you think about an issue with the magnitude that COVID-19 has, so not just the seriousness of the event, but also, particularly, its duration, then you can see just how damaging it is. When you think about individuals that are still expected to be at work, that are more limited in terms of the precautions that they take, a lot of those are your service type jobs, which in a lot of instances are your entry-level workforce,” Wenkstern said. “It’s these individuals that, hopefully they’re able to retain their jobs if they choose to, but they’re being put in a more dangerous environment, they’re not having a lot of the flexibility that others may have in terms of dealing with childcare.”

Choosing between a paycheck and childcare sometimes results in skipped rents, missed utility payments and other economically devastating scenarios.

In March, the United Way and partners started a childcare subsidy program. The program allows up to $50 for childcare per week for working families. Currently, the program assists approximately 190 families.

Helping the community

“There’s really a whole gamut of issues that could have been magnified to make things that much more difficult for them,” Wenkstern said. “And they might not have resources that someone else may have in terms of savings or family members that can help them get through the month or things of that nature, so it’s very, very dangerous. We think that a lot of people are balancing on the edge.”

Now, the organization seeks funding assistance from its community, in the form of its annual fundraising campaign. Supporting over 20 local nonprofit organizations, 99% of the funds raised return to the community.

Since the annual campaign kicked off on Sept. 8, donors gave approximately 56% of the $500,000 goal, totaling $281,955. United Way donors pledging at least $600 to the annual United Way campaign become part of the Leadership Circle, chaired by Paul and Annette Huckfeld. In a typical year, the United Way has more than 180 donors in the Leadership Circle.

Local business, like American National Bank, Bassett Furniture Industries, Boxley Companies, Carter Bank & Trust, Eastman Chemical and Hooker Furniture Corporation, also helped raise the more than quarter-million-dollar start the campaign received.

“The annual campaign is an inspiring representation of the caring power in our community. In unprecedented times of isolation and challenges, the work being done by the United Way and other agencies throughout Martinsville and Henry County is made possible thanks to donors and volunteers like you,” said Karen Burgess, 2020-2021 Campaign Chairman for the United Way. “Your commitment and generosity brings us together even when we’re apart and enables the community to continue meeting needs in education, financial stability, and healthy living, which the community has identified as the building blocks for a good quality of life.”

'Day of Action' Was A Lifesaver For These 11 Nonprofits — and Southern Virginia Families
Grace Network received a needed donation of hygiene items as part of the 2020 ‘Day of Action’. Contributed photo.

Day of Action

United Way’s signature event, the Day of Action historically offers opportunities for nearly 150 volunteers to go out on one day, completing numerous community projects, as well as several sponsored drives to collect needed items for local nonprofits. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the safety of United Way staff, volunteers, donors and organizations, the 2020 Day of Action shifted to a sponsor-drive-only structure.

Even though the event broke tradition by not offering volunteers a large buffet breakfast before breaking out into groups to physically do work throughout the community, the organization took necessary safety steps.

“With COVID, obviously the buffet was out of the window. Certainly weren’t going to do that. And then talking with some of the nonprofit organizations as well as some of our employers, the feedback we received was they most likely, as a company, would not be encouraging of volunteers going out an mixing and mingling because they have to be concerned about the health and safety of their own workforce as well. It really was just about the health and safety of our volunteers, of our nonprofit organizations, just to not be a spreading event,” Wenkstern said. “The United Way fights for the health, financial stability and education of everyone in the community. The last thing that we wanted to be was an organization that was promoting the spread of COVID-19 because obviously that’s antithetical to our mission.”

The Day of Action breakdown

Donations for the 2020 Day of Action supported drives for 11 different agencies and provided many items.

Among those drives included collecting drinking water for Dan River Basin Association river clean-up volunteers and senior meal support for the Southern Area Agency on Aging. Donations also included items for parent support kits for Healthy Families, West Piedmont such as diapers, wipes and grooming kits. The local Smart Beginnings chapter also received book donations.

Other drives included support for troops, transitional housing support and personal hygiene products.

Tracy Hinchcliff, director of Grace Network, reported that Southwestern Virginia Gas Company and Midway Bottled Company employees delivered over 400 donated personal hygiene items.

“While we certainly missed getting together for in-person volunteer projects this year, we could not be prouder of the way the community stepped up to participate in sponsor drives to support our local agencies. It is a remarkable example of the caring power of the community,” Wenkstern said. “The United Way is a volunteer-led and volunteer-driven organization, seeing the adaptability and strength of this year’s Day of Action really highlights that mindset. Every United Way success is a product of our community – it is your service, your contributions and your advocacy that are paving the way for positive change.”

Those interesting in learning more about the United Way – or how to donate to the campaign – may visit www.unitedwayofhcm.org or contact the United Way staff at (276) 638-3946. Donors may also mail checks to the United Way at P.O. Box 951, Martinsville, VA 24114.

Amie Knowles reports for The Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected]

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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