After just four weeks of planning, United Way of Chatham hosted its first community “Day of Service” event last Thursday — kicking off its fundraising season and organizing more than 100 volunteers to work on various projects around Chatham.
The event, which had in-person and virtual volunteer options, started at the Pittsboro Senior Center early in the morning and ended at a food drive for the West Chatham Food Pantry around noon. Interim Executive Director Katie Childs, new to the role in May, said she was nervous prior to the event — nervous about it being a new event for the organization, nervous about participation of residents during a pandemic and about securing funding for the projects.
“But I feel like it was fantastic,” she said. “The generosity of the Chatham community never ceases to amaze me, and this was just kind of a snapshot in time that showed that so clearly.”
It was a hot day, with 90-degree weather nearly from the start, but no one seemed to notice — “except for me,” Childs laughed.
United Way provided T-shirts and masks to volunteers at the event. Created to help serve the community in creative ways during the coronavirus pandemic, Childs said United Way, a nonprofit which invests in organizations fighting poverty, had two goals for the event: engagement with the community and beginning their fall fundraising campaign.
“I would call both of them a big success. I think when we went into this — our board, our staff — everyone had very modest expectations because we’re in the middle of a pandemic,” Childs said. “And we’ve never done this before, none of this was in our budget. We were just starting small this year ... to see the turnout and think, ‘Oh my goodness, this is starting small’ — I cannot wait to see what next year looks like.”
During the day, there were also projects at Chatham Outreach Alliance (CORA), where volunteers from one of the event’s sponsors, Carolina Civilworks, graded and poured concrete for a new sidewalk from the pantry to the parking lot. At Chatham Trades, a donation drop-off site throughout the day, United Way dropped off 100 backpacks and presented two checks — one to Communities In Schools of Chatham for its Build a Backpack campaign and one to Salvation Army, as a special grant from Shawn McClarnon, the 2020 Ormsbee Robinson Award recipient — an award meant to honor signigicant volunteers or donors at United Way, named for one of the founders of the Chatham chapter. There were also projects at the Siler City Senior Center, Habitat and the Boys & Girls Clubs location in Siler City.
Of the volunteers who showed up throughout the day work on projects, many were grateful for safe opportunities to give back to their community after many months of volunteer events being canceled because of COVID-19 meeting restrictions.
Portia McClarnon, a Chatham resident, was one such volunteer.
“It’s important to put into Chatham County as much as you can to make the community better,” she said.
Matt Green, the manager of Carolina Civilworks, which led the CORA sidewalk repair project, echoed McClarnon’s sentiments.
“Community involvement is important because many of our workers live in Chatham County,” he said. “We live here, work here and trying to give back to the community is just an important aspect of who we are at Carolina Civilworks.”
After working the nearly full-day event — which for her included checking back in with all the projects and taking pictures in the afternoon — Childs returned home hoping to rest, instead finding a huge mess caused her dog Georgia’s gastrointestinal infection. After the emergency trip to the vet’s office and a thorough cleaning, she finally got a moment to slow down later that night.
“I’m feeling much more rested today,” she laughed, reflecting Monday on the busy day.
Moving forward, Childs said she hopes to plan another event for next year — this time with quite a bit more time to organize. United Way will also continue to work with and fund programs at the locations of the community projects, she said. Ultimately, she hopes the organization can continue toward its goal of improving the heath education and financial stability of Chatham residents — and persuading residents to join with them in those efforts.
Childs reflected on some of the best parts of the event, particularly remembering the generosity displayed by one of the workers with Carolina Civilworks. About to start pouring concrete for the new sidewalk, he paused to help a woman who’d arrived at CORA to make a food delivery — and found she had to walk through mud since the sidewalks were no longer there. He quickly paused his work on the sidewalk to walk with her to deliver the food to the pantry.
“That was kind of special just to show that we all have a role in this community, but that doesn’t necessarily pigeonhole us into that role,” Childs said. “Whether that’s a parent, or a teacher, or, you know, a newspaper reporter — it doesn’t mean we can’t jump in and help somebody when you weren’t expecting to, and I think that’s pretty special too.”
Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.