By John Tompkins

While the slow recovery of America’s economy has resulted in diminished funding for United Way organizations across western Virginia, the United Way of Rockbridge County will likely meet its fundraising goal of $250,000 for this year.

According to United Way of Rockbridge’s vice president and marketing chair, Jamie Goodin, the quest for donors has become significantly harder in the digital age, as the Internet has given people so many new vehicles for charitable donations.

“We’re now finding that people are giving money directly to agencies,” Goodin said.  “That’s been a challenge,” Goodin said.

But despite competition from popular websites like GoFundMe, the United Way of Rockbridge has for the past five years been able to meet and maintain its annual fundraising goal of a quarter million dollars. The current campaign is just about $20,000 short of its goal.

Founded more than a century ago, United Way Worldwide is America’s largest charity and operates as a middleman between private donors and various nonprofits. Each year, charities can apply for funding from their local United Way, which assesses needs and decides how to best allocate the funds it raises.

The United Way of Rockbridge is currently in the final weeks of its annual fundraising campaign and is beginning the process of deciding where its funds will be of best use this year.

“The allocations process is pretty rigorous,” Goodin said. “It involves agency visits, getting an understanding of what the agencies do, why they do it, if other agencies exist in the county to do the same things, and also how effective they are at financial management.”

First incorporated in 1950, Rockbridge County’s branch of the United Way has raised $3.7 million over the past 62 years and was able to allocate funds to 18 different local nonprofits last year alone.

Slightly more than half the donations that the United Way of Rockbridge received last year went to “safety net” agencies, including the Rockbridge Area Health Center and the Rockbridge Area Relief Association. The rest was almost evenly split between programs benefiting youth and families, such as the Rockbridge Area YMCA, and charities helping those with special needs, like the Blue Ridge Autism and Achievement Center.

In addition, according to Goodin, the United Way of Rockbridge has a special focus on advancing early childhood education.

In 2013, the organization partnered with local schools, churches, libraries, and other agencies to found Rockbridge Reads!, a program dedicated to ensuring that all children in Rockbridge County are literate by the third grade. Rockbridge Reads! organizes free pre-school story times in more rural areas of the county, coordinates activities to ready young children for kindergarten, gives parents tools to support their toddlers in the early learning process, and distributes free books throughout the Rockbridge area.

According to United Way board member Kelly Fujiwara, the project is crucial to the local community.

“When you come to school, you learn to read to grade three. From grade three on, you read to learn. So if you’re behind in those first four years…your chances of catching up drop dramatically,” Fujiwara said.  “So we need to frontload the energy and the support and the help so that as kids come to school, they come to school ready to learn.”

Two preschoolers enjoy playtime at the Yellow Brick Road Early Learning Center.

In addition to Rockbridge Reads!, the United Way of Rockbridge has for many years helped to fund the Yellow Brick Road Early Learning Center, which provides affordable, daily childcare and pre-school for local parents of children aged 6 weeks to 5 years old.

Yellow Brick Road Assistant Director Christy Ziegler said that without funding from the United Way, the center wouldn’t be able to provide many of the scholarships it gives to children of low-income parents.

You want young children to have a preschool experience, Ziegler said, but a lot of families can’t afford that.

“So when they come here, at least we’ve got that little bit of scholarship that we can offer them,” Ziegler said. “The more money that we can get, the more scholarships we can offer.”

To ensure that a steady flow of funds reaches the Yellow Brick Road and other nonprofits across Rockbridge County in years to come, Goodin said the United Way is now reaching out to younger donors and streamlining its operations.

“We’ve been really focusing on getting better at what we do, making sure our systems are as efficient as possible, making sure our committees are empowered to make autonomous decisions, efficient decisions so we can move as quickly and transparently as possible,” Goodin said.

But even with all the competition the Internet has brought to charities around the world, according to Goodin, the United Way will carry on because of the uncommon service it provides for communities across America.

“For those people that definitely want to help but don’t have time to go through the process…it’s just kind of a one-stop shop for donating your money,” Goodin said.

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