Homeless and desperate at 25 years old, Rachael Stephens found herself relying on the generosity of others. Unfortunately, some of the people who promised help to the young woman were looking for something in return.
She stayed with friends, on strangers' couches or in abandoned trailers until she entered a Salvation Army shelter in Columbia. About eight months later, a married couple took her in.
She felt safe.
But the safety was an illusion. The husband made sexual advances. When Stephens told the man's wife, the couple disposed of her.
"They brought me to Jefferson City and literally threw me out in the road in front of The Salvation Army," Stephens' voice broke as she recited her tale to more than 700 people in the Capitol Plaza Hotel ballroom Friday. "Lts. Chris and Rachel (White) were just leaving for the day and saw what happened. Lt. Rachel comforted me and reassured me that things would be OK."
Rachel White stood by Stephens' side, holding back tears as Stephens told her story during the United Way of Central Missouri's annual meeting.
Through The Salvation Army, the United Way and a host of other agencies, Stephens said, she was able to get back on her feet. She made a "best friend," who later became her husband.
"The lieutenants helped us with pre-marital counseling," Stephens said. "And boy, did we get a lot figured out there."
Just a few of the United Way agencies that helped the couple get on its feet were Dreams to Reality, Pathways (Compass Health Network), the Food Bank for Central & Northeast Missouri's mobile food pantry and The Salvation Army, she said.
The United Way of Central Missouri on Friday recognized significant efforts given on behalf of the nonprofit organization's fundraising campaign for 2018. The campaign set another record this year, raising more than $2.2 million.
In 2017, the organization set the bar at $2.17 million.
During Friday's annual meeting, the United Way presented awards to unsuspecting volunteers and organizations.
It recognized Jane Haslag, an outgoing board member, community volunteer and recent retiree as the News Tribune's marketing director.
Jayne Dunkmann and Stephanie Johnson each earned the Live United Award for service to the organization. Together, acting as Zero Budget Productions, they produce fun, light-hearted campaign-themed videos for the United Way and have done so for many years. The videos help raise awareness for the nonprofit's work.
Felicia Poettgen, executive director of Adult Basic Literacy Education, received the Ruth C. Meloy Award for Distinguished Service. ABLE tutors assist adults from Cole and adjoining counties to increase their literacy. The tutors also help middle school children keep up and read at their grade levels.
Todd and Elijah Mayfield, who volunteer for the Special Learning Center, received the Linda E. McAnany Award. Elijah Mayfield graduated from the center, which provides early intervention services for children with developmental delays and disabilities. In addition to their work in the Capitol, the father and son volunteer at the center, help with fundraising events and speak at area businesses in support of the United Way.
Surprised by the recognition, Todd Mayfield said he wondered why he kept getting text messages asking that he come to the annual meeting. He just started a new job and felt like he couldn't be there.
"My office actually got involved," he said, "and said, 'We need you to go and represent the Lieutenant Governor's Office.' Seriously. How can you say no to that?"
Elijah Mayfield shared his father's gratitude.
"I just want to thank everybody for coming out, especially my mom, Pam, for being here with me and being by my side," he said.
He also thanked Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe and his wife, Claudia, for being his friends and for attending the meeting.
Amy Berendzen and Mallory McGowin, of Jefferson City Public Schools, are the Outstanding Campaign Coordinators of the Year. The women ensured staff members at every Jefferson City Public School District building were able to learn about the United Way through a campaign rally. The school district increased its fundraising by $14,000 over 2017.
Five businesses received honors in setting the pace of the campaign. United Way pacesetters are 32 businesses that begin early and typically raise about half the organization's fundraising goal each year.
Here are the recipients of the Outstanding Pacesetter Awards:
Genesis Company, in the Small Firm Division, had 100 percent employee participation and doubled its fundraising from 2017.
Jefferson City Autoplex, in the Major/Large Firm Division, increased its campaign by 109 percent over 2017.
The William W. Quigg Awards, honoring two organizations for their campaigns, went to Midwest Independent Bank (in the Small Firm Division), which increased contributions by 39 percent over the previous year, and Jefferson City Public Schools (in the Major/Large Firm Division).
Jefferson City received the Outstanding Signature Event Award for its company-wide cornhole tournament and for a police department versus fire department tug-of-war.
Ann Bax, president of the United Way of Central Missouri, said communities around Jefferson City continue to surprise with their generosity.
"We're 5 percent over last year's final numbers, but we're 10 percent over our goal," Bax said. "It's more than just about meeting the goal or exceeding the goal. We find workable solutions to people's problems — whatever that looks like."
People need holistic help, Bax said. They don't just get one need addressed and are one-and-done.
"And that's the beauty of the United Way network," she said, "is that we have agencies that address a full spectrum of needs."