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United Way helped her family 5 ways. Now she's helping spread a message.
Columbus Ledger-Enquirer - 1/20/2020
Jan. 20--When she makes her pitch asking folks to donate to the United Way, Valerie Ward doesn't only do her job. She also tells her personal story.
Perhaps nobody in the Columbus area has a family that's been helped in more ways by the United Way.
And, as the relationship coordinator for the United Way of the Chattahoochee Valley, perhaps no advocate for the campaign gives a more authentic presentation.
"I love sharing my story," Ward told the Ledger-Enquirer, "because I think so many people use that as an excuse, saying, 'Oh, I'll never need the services that United Way helps to support. I'll never be homeless. I'll never be hungry and without food. I'll never be in a crisis situation. So why give?'
"My story and my family's story is such a great illustration of that: so many different types of services at different times in our lives. Some of them met a very big, important, real need. Some of them met a softer need. But they're all needs."
Ben Moser, president and CEO of the local United Way said, "Valerie is Living United on a daily basis through her work in the community and her personal story allows her to have a deeper connection with our donors and stakeholders in the Chattahoochee Valley. Valerie's willingness to share her personal United Way story is a great asset to our organization and an inspiration to those we serve and engage."
The United Way estimates 1 in 3 local residents have been impacted by one of its 28 partner agencies. Five of them have helped Ward's family:
-- Teen Advisors
-- The Family Center
-- Easterseals West Georgia
-- Ferst Readers
-- Columbus Hospice.
She graduated from Columbus High School in 2009, then from Columbus State University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in communication.
Ward's first job out of college was as the community engagement coordinator at Easterseals West Georgia, where she had interned during her final semester at CSU.
Her duties included speaking during the United Way campaign kickoff at various companies, explaining how that money has helped Easterseals. She also spoke to groups touring Easterseals to see an example of how donations are used.
"That was part of the job I loved the most," she said.
Two years later, that experience motivated her to work for United Way, so she could help more people.
Ward learned her family members had benefited from the United Way more than she had realized -- and they would continue to benefit in ways she didn't expect.
While attending Double Churches Middle School, Ward joined Velocity. That's the seventh- and eighth-grade branch of the program for high school students called Teen Advisors.
Members pledge to abstain from sex, alcohol and other drugs. They participate in various activities that emphasize rising above negative peer pressure and making positive choices. They spread that message by visiting classrooms and sharing their testimony with fellow students.
Beyond the fun she had in Velocity and Teen Advisors, Ward said that experience taught her to be a confident public speaker and showed her a possible career path.
"It's something that catches you and doesn't let go, and you want more of that," she said. "I feel like I make a positive impact every day. Maybe not directly, but because of what I do, somebody's life is going to be impacted."
Her mother, Debbie Evermon, said she has listened to Ward speak on behalf of United Way, "and it always brings me to tears. I just think it's a God thing. God puts people in positions for reasons."
More than a dozen times, Evermon said, she has heard someone say they donated to the United Way after hearing Ward or Evermon's other daughter, Danielle Barfield, give their testimony.
Hearing a personal story, Evermon said, "puts a face with the agency."
The Family Center
Consumer Credit Counseling Service is among The Family Center's programs. Ward's family needed that service after the March 1, 2007, tornado severely damaged their house in the Deer Crest subdivision on Buckeye Way.
Six family members and their Labrador retriever huddled in their three-story home's downstairs bathroom as the storm toppled a pine tree large enough to "basically take the front of the house with it," Ward said.
When the storm passed, debris blocked their front door, so they escaped through the side.
"It smelled like smoke," she said. "We didn't know if there was anything on fire."
No fire, but the house wasn't in a livable and safe condition. They stayed in a hotel for a week, then an apartment for six months, until their home was rebuilt. Insurance didn't cover all their expenses. They fell into debt.
Someone referred them to The Family Center, where the credit counseling service guided Ward's parents through a debt management plan and back to a firm financial footing.
"I don't know if we could have done that without them, not as quickly," said Evermon, a dental hygienist at Rivertown Dental Care. ". . . So many people have a negative perception of United Way, that they help just certain type of people or income. It's not true. They help anyone and everyone. You have different needs at different times of your life."
"There wasn't any shame in it," Ward said.
Ward's niece Kendall Barfield was born with spina bifida, a malformation of the spine and spinal cord. A doctor declared Kendall would never walk.
From age 6 weeks until she entered first grade, Kendall received therapy at Easterseals of West Georgia.
Now a third-grader at Calvary Christian School, Kendall sometimes is in a wheelchair but mostly uses braces and crutches to get around -- and even to compete in races as long as a half mile, Ward said.
Kendall also has been a cheerleader and acted in her school's production of "The Jungle Book" as the sassy monkey.
"Our dad always told us, 'Can't never could,'" she said. "Never say never. You never know what's possible. ... That's the same attitude Easterseals has."
Kendall's therapy at Easterseals enabled her to gain more independence.
"Her teachers, with every device, would help her learn how to use it," Ward said. "... They just always lovingly pushed her to do more."
Ward recalled Easterseals teachers encouraging Kendall as she struggled to walk from one end of the building to the cafeteria and cheering, 'C'mon, Kendall! Just a little bit further, a little bit further! You're almost there! A few more steps!'"
As a first-time mother, Ward was committed to overcoming unpleasant childhood memories of reading and instill a love of books in her son, Eli. That's when she turned to Ferst Readers.
Parents and guardians can register their child on the Ferst Readers website to receive in the mail an age-appropriate and award-winning book, plus literacy resources, each month free of charge until their child is 5 years old.
During their bedtime ritual, Ward snuggles with Eli, 3, as they read and interact with a book for 15-20 minutes. One of the Ferst Readers resources suggested making the noises of the animals mentioned in the books. Ward laughed as she recalled pretending to be a bird and flying around Eli's room.
"I'm going to look as silly as I can if this is going to help him," she said. "... I hope that I can keep it up."
The book comes in the mail with the child's name on it.
"That alone creates excitement," Ward said. "My son can now read his name, and he knows that book belongs to him, and he immediately comes running to me, 'Mommy, let's read my new book!'"
Ward's father, David Evermon, graduated from Carver High School in 1985 and worked for 29 years at Panasonic before he died in 2018 at 50 from pancreatic cancer.
Thanks to Columbus Hospice, Ward said, he died with less pain and more love. And thanks to the hospice nurse named Melody, he was able to attend a Notre Dame football game as his beloved team beat rival Michigan 16 days before he died.
"For him to be there and to experience that, it's huge," Ward said. "It's so special."
Evermon's brother got tickets to the game, but the family was concerned whether his waning health would allow him to attend.
"He was very weak," Ward said. "At that point, he wasn't walking very long distances by himself. He was wearing his oxygen almost all the time."
Melody, however, made the arrangements for Evermon to safely go on the trip.
"She filled out paperwork, found an oxygen machine that would make traveling easier and made sure he had a lightweight wheelchair to take," Ward said.
His hospice nurse also taught his wife how "to be the caregiver she so desperately wanted to be but didn't know how," Ward said.
"She was wonderful at helping us through the steps and stages," Evermon said. "All their services are free. We didn't pay for anything."
"Hospice is a positive out of a very negative situation," Ward said. "It gave us direction. The hospice nurse would say, 'Hey, this is what to expect.'"
Ward recalled Melody asked her and her siblings, 'Have y'all talked to your dad and told him that you're going to be OK?'"
Amid their tears, they said no.
"He needs to hear that," she told them. "So you need to get to a place where you can tell him that and mean it."
He died at home, surrounded by his family.
"She really coached us," Ward said. "That's just not a situation you know how to navigate."
The hospice care continues for the family even after the death.
"We have received and still receive newsletters and resources in the mail," Ward said. "We also used their free grief counseling. Although I wish my family never would've needed the resources at Columbus Hospice, I am so grateful that they are in our community for grieving families."
HOW TO DONATE
The United Way of the Chattahoochee Valley's current campaign goal is $7,000,075. Campaign officials are confident enough they will achieve that goal by already scheduling their celebration event for Feb. 20, from 5:30 to 7 p.m., at the Courtyard by Marriott in Phenix City.
"We're making great progress," Ward said. "We're very optimistic for a successful campaign this year. ... The Chattahoochee Valley is so generous. The United Way is a valued part of the community. There are so many local folks that just really have gotten behind the work that we do, and they support us year after year."
Here's how to donate:
Mail: P.O. Box 1157, Columbus, GA 31902
Visit: 1100 Fifth Ave., Columbus GA 31901
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