New-look United Way kicks off 2021 campaign

Several beneficiaries of United Way funding were on hand at Thursday’s campaign launch. From left, Jessie Birkeland and Cindi Huss with RISE: Healthy for Life; Sarah Barnett with the Sequoyah Council of the Boy Scouts of America; Kelli Wagner and Meagan Meade with the Washington County Schools Coordinated School Health program. PHOTOS BY DAVE ONGIE

By Dave Ongie, News Editor

The United Way of the East TN Highlands is focused on building a bridge to the future, and to do that, they’re reaching back into the past.

The organization kicked off its 2021 fundraising campaign with a drop-by event last Thursday. The goal this year is to raise $1.25 million to help local non-profit organizations that have stepped up in a big way during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ve brought back 15 of our previous campaign chairs to mentor our new division leaders,” said Leslie Salling, President and CEO of the United Way of the East TN Highlands. “That’s part of our Building Bridges to the Future theme. We’re trying to use what we did in the past that was successful and bring it into the future.”

The future has been anything but certain for the non-profits that rely on the United Way for support. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year, many organizations in our area had to pivot quickly in order to meet new demands during the shutdown. Second Harvest of Northeast Tennessee saw a surge in folks struggling with food insecurity, and places like the Boys & Girls Club of Johnson City/Washington County that usually offered afterschool programs had to find a way to open up during the day to accommodate virtual learners while their parents went to work.

“Unfortunately, our non-profits have seen an uptick in their clients,” Salling said. “So our mindset going into this campaign is that we want to support our agencies. Right now, a lot of them are on solid ground because they have state and federal funding. We don’t want them to have to depend on that. We want to support them as a community. When that federal funding and state funding are gone, we want to say, ‘We’ve got you.’ ”

Salling said the consolidation that created the United Way of the East TN Highlands has better positioned the organization to distribute more money to the agencies that need it. 

“If we can combine some of our administrative (roles), then we can expand our community impact on fundraising,” she said. “That was our purpose in merging.”

United Way of the East TN Highlands president and CEO Leslie Salling and 2021 Campaign Chair Lester Lattany.

Lester Lattany is well-versed on that mission Salling has undertaken. Lattany served as the president and CEO of the United Way of Washington County for 14 years before he retired at the end of 2016. Now he is back as the campaign chair this year, an opportunity he is excited about.

“I recognized it was an opportunity for us to build a bridge toward the future,” he said. “What we are doing as the former campaign chairs is looking back at how we had those successes and then giving advice to the next generation.”

In the end, Lattany said the level of success achieved by this campaign will ultimately depend on the generosity of the community. All he asks is that folks keep an open mind when approached to give to the United Way and the worthy organizations it supports.

“I always tell folks don’t give me a quick no, give me a slow yes,” Lattany said. “It’s really not about the United Way; it’s completely about our community. United Way is a conduit, a way to get those dollars that are raised to the people who have the need for them.”


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