The winter of 1887 was particularly cold and hard in Denver, Colorado. The silver mines had closed and people wandered the streets hungry and homeless.

A group of visionaries – a woman and five clergymen from the four largest parishes – believed there must be a better way to meet the needs of local people. As they sought help from local merchants and businesses, they discovered very quickly they were in competition with each other as they made their calls.

So they decided to join forces and form the Charity Organization Society (COS). This group set about collecting funds for local charities, coordinating relief services, counselling and referring clients to cooperating agencies and making emergency assistance grants.

In those humble beginnings, the first United Way was born.

United Way has had a presence in Canada since 1917. The organization – then referred to as a “community collective ” – began during the First World War period in Montreal and Toronto. In 1939 the National Office was created as a division of the Canadian Welfare Council and Charlotte Whitton was named as executive director. She was an influential feminist and one of the first female mayors and companion of the Order of Canada.

Locally, our United Way was established in Chatham in 1948 with the help of dedicated volunteers from the Chamber of Commerce and local Labour Council. The first campaign was chaired by Sydney Amherst Morse, the third president and general manager of Union Gas Ltd. and raised a total of $50,023 for six charities.

Today, the local United Way provides funding to 34 health and social service programs within 19 local charities.

Over the past six decades, the organization has gone by various names – Community Chest (yes … just like the Monopoly Game!), Torch Drive, United Appeal and Red Feather.

In 1972, a new structure was created with a broader approach to include social policy and development and three years later – in 1975, the name was changed to United Way of Canada. A year later, Centraide Canada was added to the national name to acknowledge the members from Quebec.

Today there are 108 locally autonomous United Ways across Canada. Each United Way raises money and allocates funds to support its community. With support provided by volunteers and staff, the local United Way strives to create opportunities for a better life for everyone in the communities throughout Chatham-Kent. By addressing not just the symptoms of problems, the organization works to get at the root causes of social issues and focuses its attention on making long-lasting measureable changes to community conditions.

And, in May 2015, our national organization voted to join United Way Worldwide – making our local United Way one of 1,800 United Ways across the globe in 40 countries and territories.

United Way has many decades of community support to celebrate! Please join us at this year’s United Way Campaign Kick-Off – Friday, Sept. 16 at 7 p.m. at The Kent 1874. Tickets are available now.

If there is a particular question that you would like answered in a future article, please do not hesitate to send me an email at karen@uwock.ca or call me at 519-354-0430.