Finding shelter from the storm

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 31, 2005

The Times-Journal

The constituencies served by United Way-supported agencies range from relatively small groups to potentially the entire community.

“That’s the beauty of the United Way approach to community support,” said Jeff Cothran, executive director of the United Way of Selma & Dallas County. “While today there are relatively few in Selma and Dallas County with HIV/AIDS or Sickle Cell Disease, there is a larger group of women and children who are abused and who need a safe haven. And at the other end of the spectrum, in terms of the numbers served, is the Literacy Outreach Program sponsored by the Selma-Dallas County Public Library. No matter how many – or few – are served by United Way-supported programs, all need the dollars that United Way provides,” he said.

“One for all and all for one – that’s a good motto for what has been going on here since United Way was founded 41 years ago as the Community Chest,” he said. “Fifteen million dollars have flowed through this channel to help assist almost ever conceivable need for all ages, races, conditions.”

“And while the donations from our citizens support only Selma and Dallas County operations of these varied agencies, most of them serve surrounding counties as well, counties that are too sparse to support their own free-standing social agencies,” he said.

SABRA (Selma Black Belt and Regional) Sanctuary has provided an invaluable refuge for victims of domestic violence in a three-county area, including Dallas. In a typical year well more than 100 women and children are housed in the facility, being linked with all services needed for recovery. Additionally, educational programs are conducted in area schools, literature is widely distributed and a 24-hour crisis line maintained. SABRA is operating on all fronts and at all levels to meet the crisis needs of abused persons at the same time it educates the citizenry about the major problem of domestic violence and rape.

Selma AIR provides help and hope for people with HIV/AIDS in eight counties, including Dallas. According to staff, it is the only such agency between Lowndes County and the Mississippi state line. Ongoing educational services provided by Red Cross-certified HIV/AIDS educators include programs aimed at young people in schools and other settings; a speakers’ bureau staffed by people living with AIDS; informative materials; free and confidential counseling; a health monitoring clinic for screenings and medication assistance; support groups; transportation; and limited financial assistance. Nearly 15,000 people are reached annually through Selma AIR’s educational outreach – prevention and control being the agency’s main purpose. It works through many private and public partner groups and organizations, including three other United Way agencies – Cahaba Center for Mental Health-Mental Retardation, Edmundite Missions and Selma Youth Development Center.

The Sickle Cell Disease Association, serving seven counties including Dallas, has nearly 150 clients in its file, according to a staff spokesperson. It is one of seven such agencies across the state which are organized to provide education, counseling, screening and support services to persons and families directly affected by the disease that afflicts 80,000 Americans, most of them African-American. It is estimated that 7,500 persons living in the association’s service area have the trait, which means there is a one-in-four chance with each pregnancy. United Way dollars join those from individual donors, churches, civic and social organizations and businesses to provide the services offered.

The Literacy Outreach Program based in the Selma-Dallas County Public Library offers very valuable literacy services that touch the lives of children, young people and adults.

Last year the library launched a newly designed “Welcome to Your Library!” program with the ambitious goal of getting a library card into the hands of every first grader in Selma and Dallas County, including the home schooled. The program was hugely successful because for the first time the library partnered with the home and the schools to ensure that every child was physically brought to the library for a presentation, tour and a craft, and to take home a library card and a home packet.

The library, which noted author and storyteller Kathryn Windham has called the “crown jewel of Selma,” not only strongly supports literacy outreach to children and young people, but also to adults who have not finished high school. The library, which celebrated its centennial last summer, is one of a number area locations for GED instruction. Also the library has recently initiated a program that provides workshops for Head Start teachers.

The United Way contribution to the library is relatively small in comparison with its total budget, and one of the smaller grants in relation to those that go to the other 14 agencies but it is extremely important. United Way funds are targeted for collection enhancement, and given the ever increasing number of titles that need to be acquired, not to mention replacement of lost books, that’s an important need being met by United Way donors.

“Partnership is an excellent way to describe what we do,” said Cothran, of United Way’s receiving funds given from many individuals and channeling them to agencies whose services touch the lives of even larger numbers. “Our donors can see their dollars working right here in Selma and Dallas County everywhere they turn, and more often than not, they themselves will be on the receiving end of someone else’s gift – if not one’s own!” he said.

(This article is part of an ongoing series in support of the 2006 United Way campaign which ends on Dec. 31, 2005. Funds to 15 member agencies will be distributed in 2006.)