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United Way reaches 99 percent

Kent Skoglund, from left, Gina Lieser, Nathan Streed and Stacey Roberts perform a United Way victory dance during the group's annual awards and thank-you event Friday at the Oaks. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- In spite of a challenging year for raising money, the United Way of West Central Minnesota has reached 99.7 percent of its campaign goal of $750,000.

The news was announced Friday during the United Way's annual awards and thank-you event for volunteers and corporate donors.

Donations began to slow last fall as the economy worsened, said Stacey Roberts, executive director.

"As staff and as a board, we were hopeful but did not expect to even meet our 2007 numbers," she said.

The money continued to trickle in, however, and as of Friday the annual campaign had raised $748,011, with about two months to go until it officially closes.

"In this tough economy I've seen people dig deep and give," Roberts said. "We're very pleased with the year that we've had."

The funds are allocated among 54 programs and agencies that target the United Way's priorities: working with youth, meeting basic needs, fostering independence and strengthening families.

It's the last campaign under the United Way's former banner as a Kandiyohi County organization. In February it expanded to become the United Way of West Central Minnesota, covering a 30-mile radius and 19 additional communities. The 2009 campaign that will be launched this fall will be the first under the new regional identity. It will mark the beginning of a broader effort by the United Way to address regional needs and develop more partnerships.

"We've had a great year this year. It's been busy. It's been exciting. It's been challenging," Roberts said.

The organization singled out several of its initiatives from the past year, such as its ninth annual "Day of Action" last May that involved 750 volunteers.

It was the fourth year of the United Way's participation in Imagination Library, a project providing free books to 1,800 children in Kandiyohi County.

It also was a significant year for Empower, a United Way women's philanthropy initiative focusing on preparing children for kindergarten. The group, which is starting its third year, has already raised $157,000 and has 110 members. Last summer it launched its "Growmobile," a mobile preschool program aimed at reaching out to young children in low-income and at-risk neighborhoods. This June the Growmobile will become a full-time program.

"Kids who start behind stay behind, and we want to do something about that," Roberts said.

Keynote speakers Greg and Karen Hilding called the Growmobile an example of what can happen when communities rally around a cause.

"The littlest people in our community are really benefiting from the dollars you raise," said Karen Hilding, co-chair of Empower.

During hard economic times, the United Way hasn't held back, Greg Hilding said.

"I really look at United Way as carrying on the great American tradition. It's all of us working together for the betterment of society as a whole," he said. Hilding is president of Bremer Bank in Willmar, Marshall and Redwood Falls. His bank is active in the United Way and was among the top 10 in total giving this past year.

Nearly 40 businesses, community partners and volunteers were recognized Friday for their contributions to United Way.

Nathan Streed, the current president of the board, received the first Live United Advocate award. The Live United Give award went to Jennie-O Turkey Store, and the Live United Volunteer award went to Best Buy.

Additional awards were:

Outstanding cornerstone company of 2008, Life Science Innovations and Affiliates; outstanding pacesetter company, Best Buy; outstanding agency partner, Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center; outstanding community partner, Lakeland Broadcasting; outstanding employee campaign coordinators, Jenn Saeger and Becky Brown of Jennie-O Turkey Store.