United Way of Greater Chattanooga marks 100th anniversary with appeal for 100 days of service

Chattanooga's biggest community fundraising agency is appealing to local workers and residents to give their time and ideas, as well as their money, as the agency marks its historic centennial celebration this fall.

The United Way of Greater Chattanooga on Friday marked the start of the celebration of its 100th anniversary in September by launching its 100 Days, 100 Ways campaign to help engage Chattanoogans in helping their community and its residents. Leading up to the Sept. 16 and Sept. 17 anniversary celebration, when thousands of volunteers are expected to participate in the United Way's Impact Days, Chattanooga's United Way is challenging everyone to identify a community need and do something to help address that need.

"The idea of the United Way started here 100 years ago still holds true today - people from different backgrounds, faiths, ages and races all believing we are stronger when we are united in purpose and in service," Lesley Scearce, president and CEO of the United Way of Greater Chattanooga, told a gathering of supporters Friday in front of a new street sign designating part of Seventh Street as a boulevard known as United Way 100 years.

United Way is displaying downtown signs and sidewalk paintings to promote the 100 Days 100 Ways campaign and is urging people to sign up for activities on the website created for the 100-day volunteer campaign at 100days100ways.org.

"We want to be clear that this engagement opportunity is for every single person in the Greater Chattanooga area," Scearce said. "It takes just a second to do something for your neighbors and community, and that moment can turn into something lasting."

Scearce said people may nominate local projects to be included among the 100 ways to support the campaign through July 15.

Chris McKee, executive vice president of McKee Foods and chairman of the 100th-anniversary campaign for United Way, said he has supported United Way for the past 25 years and has seen firsthand the value of the collective approach to addressing both community and individual problems. Over time, the United Way has evolved from primarily a fundraising program to support dozens of local service agencies to more of a convener and organizer to help bring different community groups together to identify and implement solutions to local problems.

"Younger workers especially are interested in getting involved themselves and working to support local causes and programs beyond just making a payroll deduction at work," McKee said.

United Way, which raised more than $12 million last year from area workplace givers, has changed its funding and mission to focus more on community needs than particular organizations. United Way is shifting this year to a competitive, application-based approach to determine where to issue grants as opposed to allocating funds raised each year to the same 40 traditional partners.

"The traditional model was to encourage people to give to United Way with payroll deductions and we will wisely invest those donations," Scearce said. "We will still invest our dollars wisely - that has not changed. But we really believe to be the orderly, sustained effort working in our community, it takes more than our dollars."

United Way now works to not only allocate money it raises but works to help bring groups together to assess, coordinate and address local needs and help administer outside funding for government and nonprofit agencies for particular challenges. United Way's 211 call center handles more than 90,000 calls a year, and last year United Way also helped deploy $24.2 million into the community in COVID-19 response funds provided through the state to a variety of community groups. Chattanooga's United Way was awarded another $9 million grant this week from the Tennessee Department of Education to equip and deploy tutors across Chattanooga to reach 3,000 students who are behind in math and reading, Scearce said.

"We have the relationships with all of the community partners we need to be successful in these types of initiatives," she said.

Scearce noted that similar to today, Chattanooga's United Way was launched in 1922 when the community was coming out of an epidemic of cholera, yellow fever and the Spanish flu that had left many orphans and widows in great need.

"Times have changed but not the need for a united, community effort from everyone to address the challenges in Chattanooga," she said.

The role of United Way in supporting Chattanooga was highlighted in a poem written for the agency's 100th anniversary by acclaimed poet Erika Roberts.

"Share hope transparently through these deeds as we stand on the shore toward the next 100 years of giving in an absolutely united way," Roberts told the crowd in front of the United Way office Friday morning.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340. Follow him on Twitter @dflessner1.

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