Becoming a believer

McClain sheds stubborn refusal for leadership role when he studies United Way

Greg McClain, Maryville City manager, shares his personal story of how United Way supported agencies made a difference in his life.

Greg McClain, Maryville City manager, shares his personal story of how United Way supported agencies made a difference in his life.

Greg McClain, Maryville city manager and a former United Way campaign chair, knows the value of United Way.

He doesn’t know this because of his agency visits. He doesn’t know this because of his United Way board training. And he certainly doesn’t know this because someone told him it was so.

Greg McClain knows the value of United Way from personal contact as a young boy whose family needed help.

Even with that history, there was a time when McClain out- right refused to support United Way, not even allowing a payroll deduction donation, simply on principle.

His story goes like this:

McClain was in his mid 20s working for Alcoa, Inc., a company long known for supporting United Way. The company expected its employees to support United Way during the annual campaign.

A supervisor was over zealous, McClain remembered, trying to force everyone to give. McClain bowed his back and refused.

I decided, ‘You’re not going to force me to give.’ I went on for a couple of years not giving, making excuses why not to give and blaming others as to why I wouldn’t give,” McClain said.

It was at this point a good friend challenged him. His approach was different. “He said, ‘It’s one thing not to give, but educate yourself to the truth of what you’re not giving to. Don’t beat up on United Way for no reason,’” McClain remembered.

McClain took up the challenge. “I set out to see what United Way was. I visited around and began to do research on my own, to find out what this thing was that I refused to support. I started reading literature and understanding how it was governed.”

McClain said one of the first things he discovered was the board making the decisions was made of people just like him and that anyone could be on the allocations panel, the group that decided where the money that is raised goes.

“That gave me comfort, to know it’s not somebody who is not from around here,” he said.

From there, the lessons began to hit close to home.

“Then I found out that one of my church mates, a good friend, who was handicapped, was going to Douglas Cooperative, which is supported by United Way.”

That was when the realization hit him that he, too, had been touched by United Way.

“I had gone to the Boys and Girls Club for two or three summers, all summer long, playing basketball and other sports,” he said. The connection? The Boys and Girls Clubs are United Way agencies.

“Then I also found out United Way supports the Rescue Squad.”

McClain said his father was a career soldier, a U.S. Marine for six years and in the Air Force for 15 years. He retired at 42 and was 100 percent disabled. “We were in hard economic times. Mom had to take care of dad and his illness,” he said.

Fairly often McClain’s dad would have to go to the hospital, and his mom would call the Rescue Squad. They would pick him up, take him to the hospital and bring him back home.

“I didn’t know it, but mom made a donation when she could but it was the community that helped my family and my father when he was ill,” McClain said. “It opened my eyes, and it made me realize United Way is good thing.”

McClain said he began to give to United Way every year through payroll deduction. When he was in his late 30s, he was asked to participate in the Loaned Executives program from the City of Alcoa.

“That really began a deeper relationship with the organization. First I was a loaned executive, then public service division chair for couple years, major firms chair for a year then campaign chair and then golf tournament co-chair the last two years,” he said. “In the past 10 years, I have really been very active, not only in giving, but by being involved in the campaign process.”

The city manager said whenever United Way asks him to go to different businesses or to speak with employees for the cities of Alcoa and Maryville he tries to make himself available.

“We’ve always advised that if you don’t want to give, that is more than fine. However, at least educate yourself to the point you know what you’re not giving to, it truly is a great cause,” he said. “In my mind, there is no greater organization to give to, no organization that has as wide a reach as United Way.”

The city manager said some of his fondest memories of United Way are visiting agencies and meeting folks who work at those agencies and meeting those who receive service from the agencies, just as he did so many years ago.

“These are our neighbors, and the idea that, as a neighbor, we can help a neighbor, is very gratifying,” he said. “The other thing is that coming to and working with the wonderful people at United Way and their staff, is phenomenal. This community is made up of wonderful, giving, caring folks. When you bring these groups of folks together, there are no limit to what we can do.”

What weighs heavily on McClain’s mind this year he said is the balance between greater need and greater hardship. It is hard for people to give because of the sour economy, McClain said.

“But, this is the very time people need us the most through the agencies,” he said. “I’m hoping that people will continue to support the United Way even during these difficult times because our neighbors need our help.”

United Way of Blount County executive director Michelle Hankes said in some ways United Way’s strength is that it helps people often by just giving them a “nudge” in the right direction, as with the Boys and Girls Club programming that helped McClain.

“United Way services are there as a safety net, as a gentle way to keep people from needing serious help,” she said. “Unfortunately, on the back side of this, because people don’t realize they’ve been helped, they may not be the advocates they truly are.”

Hankes said McClain is fortunate because he learned about different agencies and realized he had been helped by United Way. “If I went to other people and asked them to tell their story, they would eventually find they were touched by United Way,” she said. “We know by the numbers that 50,000 people were served by United Way last year. My guess is that most don’t realize that they were served by programs that are funded by United Way of Blount County. It’s our strength and our weakness.”

Currently, the campaign figures stand at $1,296,220 raised, which is 68.2 percent of the $1.9 million goal. Hankes said compared to other years, this campaign is about where it should be.

“That doesn’t mean it is going to be easy. It’s going to be a difficult year like last year was difficult,” she said.

Hankes said fundraising for social services is going to be difficult but in Blount County, people take care of their friends and neighbors. “We’re very fortunate, because that is not what happens in other communities, in other states and in other counties. That said, I’m very pleased with how the campaign is going,” she said.

The executive director said the campaign goal is lower this year. “There is no sense in setting a goal we can’t hit. Still, it is a difficult goal,” she said. “Some companies have blown their goal out of the water, and others have struggled. We expect that, but the heart and soul is there and stronger than ever.”

Opportunities to help United Way are many:

• Trough your company, via a one-time donation or payroll deduction each pay period.

• Participate on one of United Way’s events, such as the upcoming United Way Day at Courtyard Grille on Friday.

• Make a pledge or donation on-line at, or by calling 865-982-2251.

© 2009 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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