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Ryon Award, Pacesetter highlight kickoff to ‘23 United Way campaign
United Way of Liberty County volunteers help get the campaign kickoff started Tuesday.
United Way of Liberty County volunteers help get the campaign kickoff started Tuesday. Photo by Pat Donahue

The United Way of Liberty County kicked off its annual campaign Tuesday evening with a pair of significant announcements.

The Liberty County School System was designated as the first United Way Pacesetter for its fundraising efforts, and the United Way announced the creation of the James “Bobby” Ryon Community Spirit Award, naming the first winner of the honor.

Kristin Hopkins-Graham, United Way of Liberty County director, presented the award on behalf of Laura Betts who has been the lead volunteer with the Backpack Buddies program for a decade.

“Her commitment to the Backpack Buddies program has been inspirational,” Hopkins-Graham said.

Betts oversees the packing of over 500 bookbags each week, which are filled with food for a family for a weekend.

“Her impact extends beyond our county as she frequently goes on mission trips to provide essential services and resources to homeless women and children in other countries,” Hopkins-Graham said. “Laura Betts embodies the essence of the James ‘Bobby’ Ryon Community Spirit Award.”

The award was created in honor of the late Bobby Ryon, a Hinesville City Council member and longtime community volunteer.

“He was always working to make the world a better place at every level of his engagement,” said Brynn Grant, the president and CEO of the United Way of the Coastal Empire and a longtime friend of Ryon’s.

Ryon’s widow, Kim Thomas Ryon, noted how he was concerned when the United Way of Liberty County merged with the UWCE that money raised in Liberty County would go to local agencies.

“He made many trips to make sure the dollars raised in Liberty County were going to the Manna House and the St. James Center,” she said. “He was involved in this community. He was involved in everything. He loved Liberty County and he worked tirelessly to make sure Liberty County had what it needed.

“I could not think of a better way to honor one of the best men I’ve ever known.”

Joseph Martin Elementary School was recognized as the leading giver among the Liberty County Schools, which as a whole raised more than $43,600.

Danny Creasy, the United Way of Liberty County advisory board chair for this year, remarked on his own personal connection with Backpack Buddies. His son came home from football practice and said one of his friends had lost a lot of weight. His son’s friend was a recipient of the Backpack Buddies food during the school year.

But during the summer, there wasn’t anything to take its place. His son’s friend admitted the family was struggling, with his mom between jobs, and that he was drinking water to stay full.

“That broke my heart,” Creasy said.

Creasy and his wife gathered up as much food as they could to take to their son’s friend and pointed out how important programs such as the Backpack Buddies are.

“Be proud of all that money raised,” he said.

Grant said the United Way in Liberty County supports 59 agencies and more than 80 programs. The UWCE’s 211 line took 13,000 calls last year, connecting people with resources and support.

“Without you, there would be no United Way,” she said. “It was founded by leaders in the community, people who cared about their friends and neighbors, who wanted to make life better. And they have created something that over the decades has served hundreds of thousands of people.”

At Tuesday’s kickoff, held at the Liberty County Board of Education and sponsored by SNF Holdings and PlayDatez, Hopkins- Graham also issued an appeal to support the campaign.

“We’ve seen how together we can achieve remarkable things,” she said. “We have witnessed the positive impact of your donation and your volunteer efforts. We have seen lives transformed right here in Liberty County. Your commitment, your passion and your belief in the power of community are what drives us forward.”

Jay Wilson, the United Way of the Coastal Empire campaign chair, also highlighted the United Way’s impact. It has expanded Read United, which began in Liberty County 15 years ago, and has doubled the number of students receiving new books.

“United Way is on a roll, making a bigger impact in this region than ever before, improving the lives of people year after year,” he said.

But as the region undergoes an economic boom, its problems will grow, Wilson said.

“There will be, and already are, growing pains and challenges in areas such as food, housing, literacy, child care, workforce development and financial security,” he said. “The needs far exceed our resources every year. We need everyone to participate.”

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