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story.lead_photo.caption United Way campaign co-chair Missy Dunn watches while children from Little Explorers Discovery Center stage in the front of the room Thursday as the United Way of Central Missouri held its annual Pacesetter & Media Appreciation Breakfast to kick off this year's circus-themed campaign. Photo by Julie Smith / News Tribune.

The 2019 United Way of Central Missouri fundraising campaign had an emotional start.

Her voice broke as Ann Bax, president of the local United Way, thanked her staff for work they'd done over the past month.

On Thursday morning, the organization hosted its annual kickoff breakfast, which allows the organization to gather its "pacesetters" and coordinate their fundraising efforts.

And much of the discussion among about 100 community leaders surrounded the region's recovery from ongoing flooding and the May 22 tornado that struck Eldon and Jefferson City.

The United Way's agency partners serve people in crisis every day, Bax told representatives for the pacesetters — a group of 32 businesses and agencies that typically raise about half the organization's annual goal — and about 70 others gathered for the event.

Agency partners, Bax said, serve the small children who have been removed from their homes because their parents are struggling with substance abuse, the grandmother who has to choose between paying the electric bill and buying her medications, the homeless veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress and others.

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"On May 23, we saw an amazing thing in this community. Nobody was surprised to see an amazing outpouring of support that came from all over our community as a whole," Bax said. "The phone started ringing, and people were coming in the door at such a pace that you wouldn't have believed it."

About six Central Bank employees went to — and camped out at — the United Way office at 205 Alameda Drive. They stayed for about a week and helped staff manage the outpouring of support for the community.

"I cannot tell you the number of people that walked in the door — wanting to donate food, donate water, donate personal care items," Bax said. "Our board room filled up in a matter of three days."

The disaster occurred as the United Way prepared for its annual fundraiser. Bax described how the organization annually creates a video to share with companies and their employees, to illustrate the need for their donations. The video shoot was scheduled for May 22-23. The organization had completed the first half of the video shoot, but the tornado that night disrupted the plan.

Organizers postponed the second day of the shoot until the following week, and by then were able to incorporate the aftermath of the storm in the recording.

"We included shots of our community, post-tornado and flooding," Bax said. "It's important that we were able to work that in. Our needs are amplified."

The needs aren't only for disaster. Critical needs that existed before the storm remain, she said. And the fundraisers have a lot of work ahead of themselves.

Her voice broke as Bax thanked her staff for the work they've done since the storm — helping coordinate cleanup and recovery efforts.

The volume of volunteers arriving at the door was astonishing.

"It's been heart-wrenching, but it's been heartwarming," Bax said. "I know every single one of you has reached out and helped people who were impacted directly."

The United Way has tried to stay in its own lane, she said, and do a good job of staying out of experts' way. The Salvation Army and Red Cross are the experts in disaster recovery, she said.

The United Way's mission is to mobilize people. The morning after the tornado, the nonprofit began trying to identify volunteer opportunities so people could go out and help.

"That is what people want to do," Bax said. "It was hard for people to understand that we had to wait. We had to wait because we had to make sure everything was safe."

Work sites were unsafe because there were power lines down or there was danger of buildings falling in.

Explaining the danger was difficult.

"A lot of people didn't want to hear that. They wanted to go help," she said.

Fortunately, the United Way had gotten its volunteer site up and running last year. That site quickly came into play. The nonprofit asked that people go sign up and let them know it would notify them when it was safe to go in and help.

It took less than 21/2 days for Ameren Missouri and its partners to clear the electrical hazards. At 10 a.m. May 25, Ameren called and let the United Way know it could begin sending in volunteers.

AmeriCorps, the experts at disaster recovery, coordinated getting volunteers out to the disaster sites, Bax said.

It was the first layer of work.

"If you look around this community, there's a lot of work to be done. People get frustrated with us because we're in a holding pattern," Bax said. "We're looking for the experts to tell us where we can send the volunteers."

The next layer is more technical — requiring people with specific construction or demolition skills.

"As we go forward, we're anticipating a lot more volunteer opportunities for all those people who want to volunteer," she said.

The donation distribution center remains open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday at Capital West Christian Event Center, 1315 Fairgrounds Road. There, people affected by the tornado or flooding may pick up items such as toiletries, paper products, cleaning items and more.

The work continues.

"Amid all the disaster recovery work, we cannot lose sight of the importance of this campaign," Bax said. "The show must go on."

The campaign this year has a "circus" theme. Its slogan is "The Greatest Gift on Earth."

Money from the 2018 campaign helped provide 53,513 meals to homebound seniors, allowing them to stay independent and in their homes, campaign co-chair Doug Otto said.

Through Big Brothers Big Sisters, Boys & Girls Club of Jefferson City and Adult Basic Literacy Education, 1,056 youths were affected by role models, mentors and tutors. The campaign helped 2,380 women impacted by domestic violence receive safe havens and connect with advocacy.

The Council for Drug Free Youth provided education and support to 18,882 children, empowering them to stay drug- and alcohol-free.

Last year's campaign allowed 12,482 low-income children and adults to receive dental, medical and behavioral health care.

"You guys all did this," Otto said, by helping United Way agencies reach one of every two people in the community.

Pacesetters last year raised $966,040 (46 percent of last year's $2 million goal). This year, the United Way has set a goal for the pacesetters to raise $985,000.

The overall goal for the campaign is $2.1 million, said Missy Dunn, a co-chair of the campaign.

The first event for this year's campaign — Power of the Purse — raised more than $36,000, Dunn said.

The event was also the first in a campaign initiative that is intended to get women involved in exclusive network events and volunteering activities for the United Way.

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