In 1989, I was a student assistant in the Office of Human Resources at Wichita State University. One day in September, the placement officer said to me, “There is a job opening in the School of Music. It is half-time, so you can still be a full-time student. Your Civil Service exam is scheduled for Wednesday and your interview is on Friday. Your supervisor will be Dr. Mathis. You’re going to love him.”

I mumbled something to the effect of, “Ok,” which was about all I could muster from my surprise. Lacking even a drop of musical talent, I knew nothing about the arts and even less about the talented individuals behind the music. My comfort zone was in accounting and healthcare, which led me to major in Health Care Administration.

But the experience, about ten years in total, gave me a unique opportunity to view the world through a different lens. My favorite memory was the day a graduate student walked into my office and said, “Tina, I don’t think I’ve ever serenaded you.” Intrigued, I replied, “No, Ray, I don’t believe you have.” He returned shortly after with a shiny euphonium, sat in one of the reception chairs and played a piece for my singular enjoyment.

At the end, he stood up, I applauded, and he left without fanfare or expectation. He simply wanted to share his music with one more person in the world.

This time last week, I was sitting in a classroom at United Way Worldwide (UWW) in Alexandria, Virginia. Travel is not my favorite thing at this point in life. I would rather be home with my kids or at work getting things done. However, the training on grant writing was by a top-notch program, the Lilly School of Philanthropy from Indiana State University at a reduced rate for UWW members, so I could not pass up the opportunity to strengthen our organization.

During the stereotypical “ice breaker” session, I quickly learned most of my classmates were from United Way organizations much larger than Harvey County United Way. My tablemates were from Tennessee and South Carolina, with multi-million dollar campaigns and staff of at least 25 people each.

We answered several scripted questions including, “What is your role at your organization?” I explained that as the only employee, my “role” is pretty much everything and my job description literally says, “And don’t forget to dump the trash.”

They looked at me as if I was a unicorn or some mythical creature only found in storybooks. The next step was to introduce one of our tablemates to the full group. The kind woman from Tennessee shared my details, acknowledged the similar shock from others, and then asked everyone to give me a round of applause for being an “office of one.”

Utterly puzzled by this response, I quickly offered some perspective to the group. In Kansas, I am not unique. There are many more just like me, and they certainly do not applaud when I walk into a room.

There are 27 United Way organizations in the State of Kansas. We are completely separate, each governed by a board of directors living and/or working in that community.

Organization sizes range from zero staff, meaning board members do the work, to multi-million dollar campaigns with 75+ employees representing major metropolitan areas.

Service areas covered by each organization range from a single city to multiple counties. Most people are surprised to learn sweet Gayle Ausmus in Dodge City covers 21 counties in Southwestern Kansas with the help of only one part-time office staff. She was there for the 2007 Greensburg tornado and the 2017 wildfires. Now that woman deserves a round of applause.

I describe United Way organizations in Kansas as family members. We may have started with the same roots, but we all grew at a different pace depending on our environments. A little bit like siblings, sometimes we get along, and sometimes we go a while without talking to each other.

This independence has its advantages and disadvantages. Dollars stay local, decisions made by locals, and local people see direct results. Conversely, many good projects are not feasible because of lack of staff, and donors are not reached because of simply not enough people to make calls.

The Harvey County United Way board members and volunteers donate a lot of time and energy to keep it all going. Last year, we would estimate the value of that time to be in excess of $25,000.

The funny thing is that the board members and volunteers do not expect applause for their volunteer efforts, either. They are sort of like Ray, the euphonium player I mentioned earlier.

They do it because they want to share their “music” with one more person in the world.

— Tina Payne is the director of Harvey County United Way. She can be reached at harveyunitedway@gmail.com or 316-283-7101.