I credit the United Way for deepening my involvement in community programs and leading me to some of my most rewarding life experiences. My path to community involvement started with a program created and sponsored by the Wheeling Area Chamber of Commerce. Wheeling, West Virginia is a small river community of about 30,000 people, a community I was proud to live in most of my life, establish a career, and raise a family. About 10 years ago, my wife and I relocated out of the area, but Wheeling will always hold a warm place in my heart.
I was fortunate to find a job in Wheeling upon graduating from college. You see, Wheeling’s economy is struggling with a shrinking population and, for many years (decades even), it has felt the effects of a rapidly aging population and the impact of declining domestic coal and steel industries. You don’t have to look very far to see the empty storefronts, homelessness, and poverty in what was once a thriving city.
Wheeling has a strong spirit and swagger about it. Locals affectionately called it “The Wheeling Feeling”! It’s that never-give-up mentality my generation seemed to cling to as a new wave of community leaders. Our unified interest to improve our city was much about seizing the moment – being at the right place at the right time. We were the first generation to really experience the transformation from a healthy, stable city back in the 60’s to a rust belt community in need. We loved our little community and those of us who made a living there strongly desired to make it a better place to live.
Our catalyst for change and community involvement occurred in the mid 80’s through a program sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce called “Leadership Wheeling,” which was developed to facilitate networking and unite young professionals. Response to the program was overwhelming. It was designed to educate us about Wheeling’s heritage and then make us aware of the community programs that gave Wheeling its character — the giving and caring spirit we all shared. The critical, needs-based programs were the highest priority in our small community and thus became the primary interest of the Leadership Wheeling program and participants.
The program lasted one year and at the end of the program, each graduate was required to join the Board of Directors of a Wheeling-based non-profit organization for at least one year. And so it began. I choose W.A.T.C.H. – Wheeling Area Training Center for the Handicapped and remained on the Board as Treasurer for several years. The Center’s primary mission was to train people with mental and physical disabilities to perform a task or develop a basic skill. It was a life-changing experience to say the least. Also during this time, I became involved in a similar organization for the blind, and volunteered with the YMCA and United Way.
My United Way involvement started as a campaign chair for small businesses and migrated to the Allocations Committee where I served for several years. Having an inside-out view of many non-profits really helped set the tone for me on the committee. We were responsible for allocating United Way contributions to non-profits – a great responsibility. Our first priorities were food, clothing, and shelter – the essentials. Once we covered those, our focus broadened from there. During the allocations process, we heard presentations from executive directors, visited each non-profit organization to see the operation first hand, and worked with each executive director on future funding needs. It was a rigorous deep dive into these community programs to ensure funds were distributed appropriately.
Through these experiences, I truly felt I was giving something back to a community – my community. United Way helped me put it all together by making me aware of the great community outreach services provided by these non-profits and how to help them to not only sustain their programs and services but, in many cases, help them strengthen their efforts.
The United Way spirit has always lived in me as I continue to give back to my little community. I am currently a Trustee of a private foundation in Wheeling. As a Trustee for over 20 years, I have been involved in giving away more than $10 million in that time to benefit youth. It’s a similar mission, but geared only toward youth in the Wheeling area. Yes, there are the recreational, educational, and cultural programs that enrich our lives, but I am most proud the countless youth outreach programs – the programs for at-risk adolescents, community youth centers, free lunch programs, and the essentials of food, clothing, shelter – that we have supported over the years. These programs really make a difference in the community. They help guide and shape our youth, giving them hope, self-confidence, and direction.
Today, the Leadership Wheeling program has attracted generations of young professionals and continues to help revitalize the community. The early graduates of the program even formed an alumni group to stay united as a symbol of strength for change, and Wheeling continues to benefit in many ways. Young professionals are moving into the area and getting involved in civic organizations and city government. Wheeling’s economy and future is brighter and the “Wheeling Feeling” lives on.
I encourage you to make a difference in your community – get involved. You won’t regret the time you spend helping others.