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— United Way of White County campaign donations have experienced a downturn in the past five years, but expectations are high to meet a more feasible goal for 2020, partly because of a coveted speaker who is set to appear at the upcoming kickoff dinner.

“I’m really excited about our upcoming 2020 campaign and the campaign kickoff dinner with Scarlett Lewis,” said Anne Eldridge, United Way of White County executive director.

Lewis’ 6-year-old son, Jesse, was killed during the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Dec. 14, 2012. He was in his first-grade classroom when he and

19 other children and six teachers and administrators were killed. Lewis started the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation in honor of her son, with the foundation’s name inspired by a message about love that Jesse left on a chalkboard in their kitchen.

The kickoff dinner for the 2020 Change Doesn’t Happen Alone campaign is set for 6 p.m. Sept. 12 in Harding University’s Burks American Heritage Center in Searcy. Tickets are being sold for both tables and individuals.

The campaign goal is $350,000 — down from $400,000 the past two years.

“We lowered the goal because we haven’t been achieving it, and we wanted to make it realistic,” Eldridge said.

“This year’s campaign kickoff event will be different in the fact that Scarlett Lewis has agreed to do as many school presentations as possible to share the Choose Love Movement with children and educators in White County while she’s in the area for our campaign kickoff,” Eldridge said.

After extending an invitation to all the district schools in the area, she said, in addition to Harding Academy, Lewis will give presentations at six area schools. Other schools may decide before the dinner to book Lewis, Eldridge said.

“I am so honored to be speaking at the United Way dinner because everyone involved in this organization is choosing love on a daily basis,” Lewis said.

So far, about 3,500 students will be privy “to the skills and competencies that can help them thrive physically, mentally and emotionally,” she said.

The Choose Love Movement makes children and adults “aware that they have the power to control their thoughts and all the benefits of turning angry thoughts into loving thoughts,” Lewis said. “We can’t always choose what happens to us. … We can always choose how to respond.”

Because the United Way of White County’s campaigns have been on a steady decline over the past five years, officials have implemented new strategies to attract more donors and impact a greater portion of the county, Eldridge said.

Eldridge, hired as the organization’s executive director last June, explained that a new database known as the Charity Tracker, a free service available to churches and assistance providers in White County, is being used to bump attention for the donation campaign.

“This shared case-management software is helping to coordinate assistance and needs in White County, along with identifying service gaps in our community,” Eldridge said. “We just completed our second Stuff the Bus event, in which we collected school supplies for students, teachers and nurses in the eight public school districts in White County.”

The 2020 goal for the county’s United Way campaign is supported by an active board of directors who are “passionate about our mission,” Eldridge said. “Dr. Ginger Blackstone and Mark Prior with Harding University HU TV studio and Rick Truijillo, a Harding alumnus [who is] also a world-class videographer, have been working on an outstanding 2020 campaign video [that will be launched at the kickoff dinner].”

United Way of White County graduate intern Katelyn Edgin, who is pursuing a master’s degree in social work, heard Lewis speak at the 2019 National Association of Social Workers conference and suggested that Lewis be sought as the speaker for the kickoff dinner.

“Our campaign chairman, David Collins, and I reviewed Scarlett Lewis’ website, along with several videos, and decided she would be a great fit for our Change Doesn’t Happen Alone 2020 Campaign,” Eldridge said. “We are thrilled that she agreed to do as many school presentations as possible while she’s in the area — touching that many more children, educators and their families with a powerful message of Choosing and Spreading Love.”

At the dinner, the Pat Downs Service Award winners will be recognized.

“Volunteers who have a special role in the success of our community partner agencies will be honored,” Eldridge said. “Without volunteers, the nonprofit world would not be able to accomplish all the good things it does for our community.”

In 1990, Pat Downs became the United Way of White County’s executive director, serving the nonprofit for 29 years.

“To honor her outstanding devotion to White County, the Pat Downs Volunteer of the Year award was created last year to recognize the service of individuals who volunteer for the partner agencies funded by the United Way of White County,” Eldridge said.

This kickoff dinner will be the second year for the award to be presented at the dinner.

A table-reservation sponsorship costs $500, and an individual seat is priced at $25.

The dinner will accommodate 250 people. To purchase tickets, call (501) 268-7489.

Sponsors include Aramark, Eaton, First Community Bank, First Security Bank, Harding University, Riverwind Bank and Unity Health. The sponsors will help with the dinner and with school presentations at Sidney Deener Elementary School in Searcy, Searcy Junior High School, McRae Elementary School in Searcy, Bald Knob Middle School, Bald Knob High School and White County Central High School in Judsonia.

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