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United Way Donations Stay Home, Improve Lives

The United Way office on North Lamar is bustling with activity. Photos by Andy Knef

The United Way of Oxford & Lafayette County kicks off its annual giving campaign this Wednesday, Sept. 24, at the Conference Center and the agency’s executive director and assistant director tell HottyToddy.com that they need your donations and volunteer help more than ever.
“Despite the generous contributions of our supporters in the past, we see many people living in poverty in this area,” explained Alice Ricks, executive director of the United Way’s local chapter located on North Lamar just north of the Square. “Underemployment remains high here, and many people find it hard to afford to feed their families, take care of their children and pay their medical bills.”
Ricks, who arrived in Oxford last year from the San Francisco Bay area, adds the United Way here has a specific mission: “To improve lives and meet community needs by uniting people with resources. The building blocks to accomplish that challenging task, says Ricks, are quality education, good health and financial stability.
Alice Ricks, United Way executive director, and Katherine Drinkwater, assistant director, say The United Way here is looking for givers of time and funds and no donation is too small.

The United Way of Oxford & Lafayette County has been pursuing these goals since its inception in 1970. Former University of Mississippi Chancellor Robert Khayat and many others in the L-O-U community helped found the organization and have been supporting it actively ever since. The United Way chapter here is an autonomous non-profit agency, affiliated with the United Way Worldwide Network.
Assistant Director Katherine Drinkwater, who came to Oxford recently from New Orleans, says, “Being an autonomous agency means we can focus on the major issues in our area. At the same time, we benefit from the worldwide reach of United Way, including its 1,800 local offices.”
Ricks is quick to add that United Way donors here can have full confidence knowing that nearly all their gift will stay local, with only 1 percent of funds raised going to United Way Worldwide as a membership fee.
But it’s more than local investment of funds, according to Ricks. “Our community is part of a discussion of where that money is going,” she said. “We listen to what our donors and partner agencies are telling us about the biggest challenges facing the community. We also have an all-volunteer community investment committee that carefully reviews and assesses applications for grants to make sure the organizations are responsibly managed and that they are making a real impact.”
The investment committee is, in turn, accountable to a United Way Board of Directors that, again, consists of local volunteers, including some of the most influential and respected leaders in the community. The United Way office itself is run by Ricks and Drinkwater, along with two full-time AmeriCorps volunteers.
Such a small staff needs a lot of help and one of the biggest advocates is raising funds and awareness is the University of Mississippi. “We have a long relationship with the university over the years,” Drinkwater said. “Not only do university employees support us, but we also work directly with academic departments such as the Schools of Education and Social Work, the College of Liberal Arts and the McLean Institute for Public Service & Community Engagement.”
Generosity — from Ole Miss, and the entire Oxford and Lafayette County community — helped raise $344,000 in annual grants for 28 programs last year, but the need continues to grow. “We see the tremendous generosity of this community every day,” Ricks said. “Our donors and volunteers come from every income level and walk of life. We have people who donate as much as $10,000 annually and others who proudly send in $10 a month. If it’s meaningful to you, it’s meaningful to us.
“At the same time,” Ricks continued, “More is needed. To accomplish our mission of improving people’s lives, money is not enough. We also need people power.”
United Way works with Volunteer Oxford to connect interested volunteers to the agencies where their talents and enthusiasm will do the most good. They have year-round volunteers, as well as some who help out on specific projects.
Katherine Drinkwater and Alice Ricks stand in front of the Baker Building on North Lamar, the current home of the United Way of Oxford & Lafayette County. Photo by Sarah Beth Wiley.

What are some of those specific programs in this area that address acute problems, and for which volunteer hours and dollars are making a difference? United Way funding supports a wide variety of programs, including after-school and summer programs, programs to help families get back on their feet during tough times or after disasters, and programs to ensure that people have the health care and medicine they need.
United Way is also the lead agency for the LOU Excel by 5 Coalition, which is working with parents and childcare providers to help offer young children everything they need to get a good start in life. “We’re working for a future in Lafayette County and Mississippi where every child will enter Kindergarten prepared to succeed,” Ricks said.
The motivation to lend a hand is strong among the citizens of this community. Ricks and Drinkwater urge everyone to carefully consider donating to the United Way during this year’s fundraising campaign or to get involved as a volunteer.
You can contact the United Way at 662-236-4265, learn more through their Website, www.unitedwayofoxfordms.org, or attend the kick-off event this Wednesday where Lydia Jones, wife of University of Mississippi Chancellor Dan Jones, will be the keynote speaker.
No contribution is too small. “Someone recently mailed in two $1 bills and we were touched and moved,” Drinkwater recalled. She summed it up this way: “Change makes dollars and dollars make change.”
Don’t miss your own personal opportunity to help make Oxford and Lafayette County the community we all want it to be.
Andy Knef is Hottyoddy.com editor. You can contact Andy about this story at Andy.Knef@HottyToddy.com.

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