Provided Photos - Modern Photos by Ralph Duke

Among the top headlines in the summer of 1924, the story of a live newborn found swaddled in a rag and left in a bucket near St. Anthony’s Sanitarium was hard to miss. For Amarilloans accustomed to a daily diet of positive news about the future of their city, this must have been mystifying.

This was, after all, the Amarillo of possibilities—a rapidly growing city gaining thousands of new inhabitants lured by jobs and opportunity in the wake of an oil boom. But in this crowded field of ambition and optimism, a mother felt compelled to leave her newborn in a bucket, in hopes that someone would give her baby a better life than what she could provide. The aspiring metropolis, it turned out, was not immune to the desperation that seems to hide in the folds of plenty.

It’s unknown how life turned out for the abandoned baby, other than that the infant boy was expected to live. But another local news story later in the same year would be updated again and again. And as they say in the news business, the story still has “legs.” As summer turned to fall in 1924, a united effort to advocate for society’s most vulnerable in a more meaningful way resulted in the formation of the Amarillo Community Chest—what we know today as the United Way of Amarillo & Canyon.

Now in its centennial year, the United Way’s job still isn’t done as society continues to change and its deficiencies evolve with it. United Way changes, too, but the strong attributes that have kept it going through the Depression, wars, economic upheaval and a worldwide pandemic have remained remarkably the same for 100 years.

The Common Good

Mary Coyne is a marketing and advertising professional serving on the Executive Board of the United Way of Amarillo & Canyon. She began volunteering with United Way early in her career. With a perspective of more than 40 years of the United Way’s century of service in Amarillo and Canyon, she believes the organization has survived and thrived by staying true to a simple core mission.

“Our board has spent some time thinking about why the United Way was started 100 years ago and what has carried us through,” says Coyne. “We’ve had some good discussions around what we perceive to be the ‘essence’ of the United Way, and we came up with this statement: We gather community resources to advance the common good. The thread woven through all these years is the understanding that it’s imperative we help one another. As it turns out, people here have always been really good at that.”

Coyne’s marketing career started with The First National Bank of Amarillo, a business guided for decades by some of the area’s leading professionals. While small and individual efforts and giving the “fair share” are foundational in the United Way’s giving strategy, business leaders and corporate support have long been a guiding force behind United Way. And much of the heavy lifting is often done by young careerists with an eye on moving up in the corporate ranks after proving their mettle on a United Way campaign.

Not long into her job at First National, in the early 1980s, Coyne joined the United Way Campaign Cabinet. Like many other young professionals, she began United Way service as a loaned executive, sanctioned by her employer to take leave from the office to help plan and execute the annual United Way campaign. This program is a hallmark of how United Way navigates the rigorous fall weeks when rallies and events crowd the business and social calendar.

“We have literally hundreds of people still in this business community who have participated in that program,” Coyne says. “Typically we’ve taken the group offsite for a couple of days and really helped them understand what’s special about the United Way, how we can help them help the community and just fall in love with the United Way and the work that we do to make the community better. It’s been a national benchmark for how United Ways should do this.”

Serious Work, Serious Fun

In the earliest years of the nation’s unified fundraising movement, ministers, rabbis and social workers organized community solicitations. By the time Community Chests were being organized in the first two decades of the 20th century, the business community had been firmly engaged. It was the Board of City Development, the predecessor of the Amarillo Chamber of Commerce, that helped launch the first Community Chest campaign locally in December 1924 with a $25,000 goal, a dollar figure almost equal to the number of people who called Amarillo home at that time.

Amarillo’s Community Chest was organized strictly as a fundraising effort, with the stated aim of making solicitation more efficient for all involved. An ad in the Dec. 7, 1924, Amarillo Globe stated that “the Community Chest plan makes for better social work, as the workers and executives of the agencies can put their time in on service, instead of money raising.”

Press updates on that first campaign’s progress read like field reports from the battlefield. It was practically a door-to-door effort with teams of Community Chest volunteers fanning out into various quadrants of the city to collect cash or pledges. As the drive neared the end of December, bad weather slowed progress. It wasn’t until early 1925 that the first campaign wrapped.

Coyne contrasts those early efforts with contemporary campaigns by pointing out that the element of fun was eventually added into the serious work of enticing businesses and individuals to donate money for vital social services in the area.

“Over the years I’ve seen some of the most creative things happen within companies around the United Way campaign just to get people to focus on the United Way, what we do, and have some fun in the meantime,” Coyne says. “And that is such an important part of so many companies’ cultures.”

Adam Leathers, senior director of community impact at United Way of Amarillo & Canyon, says United Way encourages campaign leaders to get people engaged in whatever way they can, especially in a post-pandemic world where traditional office rallies may not effectively reach workers on hybrid work schedules.

“We’re trying to tailor giving opportunities to the individual businesses and individual people, so there’s a wider variety of events for them to sponsor based on what they’re interested in,” he says. “We’re putting out a lot more events this year to really let people give in the way that works for them.”

United Way is also placing more emphasis on smaller businesses and their employees, hoping to tap into a pool of potential new donors.

“We’re refocusing to engage smaller businesses a lot more than we have in the past,” Leathers says. “We’ve had all those major partners—Pantex, Tyson, Xcel Energy—that are still faithful, but right now we’re looking at some of these smaller- to medium-size businesses just to develop a good relationship with them.”

This continual retooling has been critical in keeping United Way relevant and, at certain times over the past 100 years, solvent. After that first fledgling effort in 1924, Community Chest perfected its process just in time to be tested in ways never before imagined.

Enduring Turbulence

The onset of the Great Depression was slightly delayed in Amarillo, but by 1931, the value of commodities produced in the Panhandle had dropped precipitously and more Amarilloans were falling on hard times. Growing food insecurity led Community Chest to procure a 5,000-bushel wheat bin for donated grain that was ground into flour and distributed to poverty-stricken families. If it weren’t already bad enough for the city’s vulnerable and the agencies tending to them, Community Chest itself almost went under. A supplemental fund drive had to be organized just to keep the organization afloat.

Community Chest rebounded during the years of World War II, and its ongoing success tracked with Amarillo’s phenomenal growth in the 1950s. The organization was rebranded as the United Fund of Amarillo in 1957, and played a pivotal role in nurturing other agencies that were being established to address evolving needs in the community.

Amarillo’s growth was severely stunted in the 1960s with the gradual closure of the Amarillo Air Force Base, a significant source of donations for the United Fund. The 1966 campaign fell short of its goal, forcing the United Fund to lower expectations by more than $25,000 the following year. Operating under the name United Good Neighbors Fund in the latter part of the decade, the organization doubled down, adding new donors and boosting per capita giving. The final tally of the 1969 campaign—the first without the air base—was more than $16,000 above goal. It was higher than the total raised when the air base was at full capacity.

In 1971, the United Fund emerged from this turbulent era with yet another new name—the United Way. At its 50-year mark in 1974, the United Way became a service provider itself in a move that continues to prove the organization’s relevancy to the present time.

In 1973, a community study backed by the Junior League of Amarillo revealed a breakdown between available community resources and the information needed to access them. United Way received grant funding to create an information and referral service, and in 1975 hired noted social worker Frances Powell to run the program. Powell took calls at the United Way office on Line Avenue and used note cards to track needs and resources. This service became known as the United Way Helpline. In 2005, it became part of the Texas 2-1-1 referral system.

Janell Menahem is the current director of Texas Panhandle 2-1-1/United Way Helpline, an agency of the United Way of Amarillo & Canyon. Through the 2-1-1 system, her team operates a Texas 2-1-1 Area Information Center, or AIC, that covers the 26 counties of the Texas Panhandle. Menahem says 2-1-1 agents not only match resources to the callers’ needs but also work to educate them on ways to stop the “domino effect” of predicaments that exasperate the desperation in their voices.

“If Mom is living paycheck to paycheck and she’s spent all the money on bills and gets paid every other week, and they walk out and there’s a flat tire, they don’t have money to pay for that flat tire,” Menahem explains. “They don’t have a way to get the flat tire to the place to get the flat tire fixed. And now Mom can’t get to work, can’t get the kids to school, so the kids miss over a week of school so that’s going to put the child behind as well as not being able to feed them because they’re probably on free lunch at school—that’s how they eat.”

Serving ALICE

This litany of troubles is becoming more common, Menahem says, and affects more people who aren’t typically considered impoverished. United Way places callers, such as the mom with the flat tire, in what it calls the ALICE demographic—Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed.

In his role as the director of community impact, Leathers believes it’s imperative that the community recognizes the struggles of this often overlooked group to keep them from falling into poverty, and his team is doing everything they can to raise awareness.

“These are folks who live above the poverty line, so it means they typically don’t qualify for much governmental assistance,” Leathers says. “But they live beneath the cost of living—what it takes to make ends meet.”

Those caught in the ALICE demographic try to work their way out on their own, but if they take a second job or ask for more hours, they could lose what little assistance they receive, Leathers says. Every choice can lead to more struggle.

But for Leathers, Menahem and others working on strategies to help these clients, ALICE represents another unique moment in time when a rising tide of challenges can be met with a unified community effort to do more than just address immediate needs.

Coyne sees the United Way’s purpose as facilitating and supporting efforts that help people advance in life—to thrive and not just survive. The organization carries out this mission through programs such as 2-1-1 and, as it has for 100 years, by raising funds for the work of community partners that are united in their efforts to remove the barriers that prevent people from advancing. The United Way’s focus for its centennial year, Coyne says, is to build an even broader base of donors to help fund this work.

“I want a better community, and I think we all do,” Coyne says. “I just personally find the United Way and its focus and the way it does business is the best way to help the community because it takes all of us, living United.”

Author

  • Wes Reeves

    Wes was raised in the Texas Panhandle and has been a resident of Amarillo for almost 30 years. He has been active in the Amarillo Historical Preservation Foundation for the past 15 years, and works in his spare time to bring history alive through historical preservation and engaging new generations in the appreciation of the region’s colorful history.