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story.lead_photo.caption Amber Brondel and Elijah Mayfield look at the decorated carousel horse that won its category in this year's competition. The horse was decorated by Mayfield's aunt and was one of several on display Thursday at this year's United Way of Central Missouri community campaign kickoff luncheon at Capitol Plaza Hotel. Photo by Julie Smith / News Tribune.

Rhonda Spencer woke from a deep sleep shortly before midnight. She got up to feed her cat, and her cellphone began to ring.

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When she answered, her sister was on the line, asking if she was all right.

Confused, Spencer asked why her sister would need to know. At about the same time, Spencer began to hear voices outside her Hawthorne Park apartment.

As she walked to the door to investigate the commotion, her sister told Spencer a tornado had just ripped through the complex where she lives.

Spencer opened the door and saw rubble, broken-off trees, downed power lines and apartment buildings whose top floors were missing.

She was in disbelief.

"My phone, which was about to die, was blowing up with calls and text messages from individuals trying to figure out if I was OK," Spencer said. "All I could think as I tried to go through the calls was, 'What am I going to do? Where do I even start?'"

Even her truck — her method of escape — was badly damaged. And it wouldn't start.

Soon, firefighters arrived and told people to evacuate the buildings — and to only take necessary items.

"For me, this was a pair of shorts to sleep in and my cat. I was hopeful that I would be back the next day," Spencer said.

That turned into several days. Eventually, she was allowed to return to her apartment, which had no electricity or water. And she had to find a new home.

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"The fact that I was going to have to ask for help — and then accept it — was the scariest thing for me," she said. "Honestly, it still is."

Spencer doesn't like asking for help — she's stubborn like that, she said.

Individuality and stubbornness are the same things Spencer, a case manager at the Rape and Abuse Crisis Service (RACS), sees in her clients, she told more than 500 people attending the annual United Way of Central Missouri campaign luncheon Thursday to announce campaign pacesetter results.

As a case manager, she works with survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.

"I realize that some of them may be as terrified about asking for help as I was," she said. "Some may not even know what they need help with or even where to start."

When people reach out to her, it's important that — like the United Way — she's prepared and confident with the resources available, Spencer said.

"I do not know all the answers, but having the collaboration of other United Way partner agencies allows me to find the support they need the majority of the time," she continued. "There will be struggles and setbacks — and there's not always a quick fix."

It took two months for Spencer's life to return to "any sort of normalcy," she said. "And it's still a work in progress."

The United Way helps storm victims and clients at RACS with the healing process. So, "clients aren't just provided a bandage for a situation but a treatment plan for success," she said.

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Spencer was fortunate: She had support of friends and family. But many people the United Way serves who experience disasters don't have those resources.

"United Way and partner agencies were a big support for those individuals," she said. "Within days, the United Way was overflowing with phone calls from people asking how to help."

Her voice cracked slightly as she told listeners that, without donations, the United Way wouldn't be able to support its partner agencies, and the needs of people in the community would go unmet.

"For me, the United Way truly provides the greatest gift on Earth," Spencer said.

"The Greatest Gift on Earth" is the slogan for this year's circus campaign theme. At the end of June, the nonprofit's pacesetters — a group of 32 United Way partner businesses and agencies that typically raise about half the campaign fundraising goal — began their annual efforts.

Pacesetters set a record this year — and, for the first time, raised more than $1 million on their own. The businesses raised $1,006,207, according to Missy Dunn, one of the co-chairs of the campaign. That eclipsed the previous record of $966,040 they raised last year.

Again this year, Central Bank, Central Technology Services and Central Mortgage led the way. Their organized efforts brought in $205,000. Last year, they managed $195,500.

Other significant fundraisers were Osage Ambulances, $62,612; Hawthorn Bank, $59,063; Jefferson City Medical Group, $46,200; Jefferson Bank, $43,773; Missouri Farm Bureau, $40,000; Capital Region Medical Center, $38,011; and many others.

Jefferson City Autoplex had the largest jump in donations — increasing by 66 percent over 2018 to $30,706.

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Now, the campaigns for other businesses are set to begin. The United Way of Central Missouri has a goal this year of raising $2.1 million.

"What's really incredible is that this year is the first year that at this point in the campaign we have broken over $1 million," Dunn said. "Our community is really rallying after all of our devastation."

The pacesetters understand the stakes are high.

The next part of the journey — the community campaign — asks employees of more than 370 businesses to join the effort to support the community, Dunn said.

It takes all sizes of businesses to make the campaign work, she said.

"We are blessed to have your passion, compassion and support," Dunn said. "And I can't wait to watch your campaigns take shape."

Kathy Crow, who worked for Central Bank for 45 years before she retired, began working with the Boys & Girls Club of Jefferson City early this year. Crow told listeners at the luncheon that she spent those campaigns watching from the same side as them.

Crow said, at the club, she sees the people who were affected by flooding and the May 22 tornado that struck Jefferson City.

"These are our people. This is our community," she said after watching a promotional video for the campaign. "Those kids who are in the video, I've read to, I've given hugs to. I interact with them."

After the tornado, the Boys & Girls Club opened its doors to children affected by the storm.

The stories are real, she said.

The club took in 25 children. It didn't charge the families — because that's what the community does, she said.

Shortly after the tornado, the club received a "pretty big" donation from a donor, intended to help replace the children's toys.

"I got the privilege of talking to the kids, to find out how they were doing, what they needed," Crow said. She asked what they missed.

"These kids — they lost their favorite blanket. They lost their favorite pillow. Their dolls. Things that we wouldn't think were that important that mean everything to them."

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