The United Way: 80 Years Serving Smith County by Robert Marlin


The United Way of Smith County has reached a milestone,
serving the citizens of Smith County for eighty years. It
was known as the Tyler Community Chest when the
organization was first organized in 1940 by a group of far-sighted
citizens who saw a need to step up and help fellow citizens who
were less fortunate than many in the community. This group of
Tyler leaders recognized that, despite the fact the country was
emerging from the Great Depression, its negative effects were
still felt by substantial numbers within the community. They
set a goal to raise $20,000 that first year. They achieved that
goal with support from the City of Tyler and from a few local
businesses and individuals.

Establishing an organization dedicated to assisting with the
health and human services needs of the community was
not particularly unique to Tyler. Hundreds of Community
Chest-type organizations had been organized in communities
throughout the nation. Some used the name Community Chest,
others had their own monikers; regardless of what they called
themselves, they all shared a similar mission of reaching out to
the poor, needy and helpless within their respective communities.
By 1970, United Way of America was formed as a way for local
organizations to work together for a common goal.

Since 1970, a theme that has echoed in communities across
America is “The Power of You.” You, the members of your
local communities, are the power that makes the United Way
successful in getting services to people who need them. The
very definition of “community” illustrates the important
role YOU play in making United Way successful:

Community: a group of people living in the same place
or having a particular characteristic in common; a feeling
of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common
attitudes, interests, and goals.

“United Way chapters exist in communities across America.
Each operates autonomously,” explains John Gaston,
President and CEO of the United Way of Smith County.
“United Way is a grass roots organization that serves
individual communities throughout the nation by bringing
together local nonprofits with volunteers from the public
and private sectors. We are governed by local leaders
who maintain the integrity of the organization through
transparency and strong fiscal management. The money we
raise every year supports the partner agencies of our local
United Way.”

Today, the United Way of Smith County continues the tradition
of community leadership that was begun eighty years ago. From
the beginning, its mission was simply stated as “We are caring
for our community by partnering with you.” Now as the United
Way of Smith County begins its ninth decade, that mission has
an expanded meaning:

We believe that empowering EVERYONE to give, advocate, and
volunteer is the most effective way to collectively improve Smith
County. It is only by working together that we can start to create
lasting change and opportunities for all.

Now, more than ever, it is the support from caring members
of the community who make it possible for the United Way to
complete its mission. The current pandemic that has gripped
our nation has affected thousands of lives throughout our
community. This is not a crisis in some faraway land; it is a crisis
in our own backyard. This crisis injured our local economy; has
interrupted the education of the children; and has brought illness
to our neighbors. Virtually everyone in our community has felt
the negative impact of this crisis that swept across the globe. As a
result, more people than ever are in need of services provided by
the partner agencies of the United Way of Smith County.

To demonstrate how important the United Way is to our local
community, consider this fact: one in four families in the Tyler/
Smith County service area are touched directly by one of its
partner agencies. Put another way, approximately 60,000 people
receive some type of aid through one of the agencies supported
by the United Way of Smith County. “These nonprofits are
vital for the well-being of thousands of our neighbors,” Gaston
emphasizes. “Because of the efforts of United Way volunteers and
the businesses and individuals who lead the way in fundraising,
we are able to make life better for thousands of people who share
our community.”

In the past, there has been some confusion on the part of the
public about how the United Way operates. There are local
companies that are “Community Pillar” sponsors. This select
group of companies designate specific amounts of their corporate
gift to cover the administrative costs of the local United Way
annual fundraising campaign. That ensures that gifts from the
public go to meet real needs in our community and are not used
in any way to defray United Way overhead costs.

The nonprofits who receive financial support from funds raised
through the United Way annual campaign are referred to as
Partner Agencies.” The number of partner agencies changes from
year-to-year. 100% of funds raised stay in the local community
and are allocated directly to the partner agencies of the United
Way of Smith County. Currently, there are twenty-four local
agencies affiliated with the United Way of Smith County. They
represent a variety of programs that impact different segments of
our community.


The 2-1-1 East Texas Help Line Call Center:
This is the number to call when you don’t know who to call.
The service is free, anonymous, and available twenty-four
hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year. Trained
and certified Community Resource Specialists answer calls
and provide assistance to every caller by assessing the need and
providing referrals to the appropriate local charity, nonprofit, or
governmental agencies. On a normal day, the 2-1-1 call center
averages about 150 calls. During the current COVID-19 crisis,
the call center is receiving an average of 350 calls a day from
people needing some sort of assistance.

In 1991, the United Way of Smith County responded to the need
for people in our community to easily access help from charitable
and governmental agencies by implementing INFOLine, a Smith
County information and referral service. As an active member
of the Texas Alliance of Information and Referral Systems, the
United Way of Smith County, along with other community
organizations, formed the task force for the Texas Information
and Referral Network. The task force worked in partnership to
develop and implement a statewide information and referral
network. Its goal was to provide all Texans with one number to
access health and human services, thereby simplifying the task
of finding help. The partnership was successful, and in July
2000, the Federal Communication Commission set aside the
211 code nationally for universal access to health and human
service information and referrals, and the 2-1-1 dialing code was
born. In February 2004, INFOLine transitioned to the 2-1-1
East Texas Area Information Center covering fourteen counties,
Anderson, Camp, Cherokee, Gregg, Harrison, Henderson,
Marion, Panola, Rains, Rusk, Smith, Upshur, Van Zandt, and
Wood counties. In February 2020, the service celebrated twentynine years of service to the East Texas community and fellow
Texans across the state.

United Way’s partnership with the Health and Human Services
makes this much-needed service available to our community and a
network partnership across 94% of the United States. Whether in
times of natural disaster or personal crisis, 2-1-1 is committed to
being the first, most essential resource to anyone who needs help.

The East Texas Center for Nonprofits:

Provides management training and coaching services to
ensure a stable and sustainable future for member agencies.
Established in November 2000, ETCN answers the need
many area nonprofits have to ensure their staff employees and
volunteers are properly prepared to interact with the public. In
2019, ETCN conducted 350 hours of training, serving 2,071
individual nonprofit professionals representing more than 280
organizations. The center offers personalized services in the
areas of Board Governance, Strategic Planning, Grant Research
and 501(c)(3) Regulations to help local nonprofits improve their
overall management. Their training services are provided at lowcost, or in many cases, no-fee at all. In the effort to help build
strong executive and board leadership, ETCN initiated a training
program that culminates with presentation of their Nonprofit
Management Certificate upon successful completion of the course.

United Way supports local Education
programs of the following agencies:

Boy Scouts of America – East Texas Area Council, Girl Scouts of
Northeast Texas, Literacy Council of Tyler, The Mentoring Alliance,
Smith County Champions for Children, Smith County 4-H

Local Financial Stability programs
are supported for the following agencies:

Azleway, Christian Women’s Job Corps, Goodwill Industries of
East Texas, Habitat for Humanity of Smith County, PATH, The
Salvation Army, Tyler Day Nursery

Local Health and Wellness programs
are supported for the following agencies:

Alzheimer’s Alliance of Smith County, The Arc of Smith
County, Bethesda Health Clinic, Children’s Miracle Network,
East Texas Food Bank, Meals on Wheels East Texas, Next Step
Community Solutions

Local Crisis Intervention programs
are supported for the following agencies:

American Red Cross of East Texas, CASA of Smith County, Children’s
Advocacy Center of Smith County, East Texas Crisis Center
In need of more office space, the United Way of Smith County
was fortunate to be gifted the historic Woman’s Building in 2017.
Located on South Broadway at the corner of Dobbs,
across from Hogg Middle School, the Shirley Simon-designed
structure was completed in 1932, and for decades it was the
site of social, civic, and educational events under the auspices
of the Tyler Woman’s Forum. The building had fallen into
disrepair and required extensive work to convert it into offices
for the United Way. “Because it is registered as a local, state,
and national historical landmark, we were required to petition
the Tyler Historical Preservation Board for approval to make
renovations,” Gaston said. The renovations strictly followed
historic preservation guidelines and included bringing the
building up to current building code standards, making the
interior ADA compliant, including the restrooms, and the
addition of an elevator to provide access to the upper floors.

“Part of our agreement with the Tyler Historical Preservation
Board was the inclusion of a program to sell naming rights for
the building. Our goal is to find a benefactor who will provide
the funds necessary to provide for the building’s future long-term
maintenance in exchange for the right to name the
structure,” Gaston explained. “Our hopes are that such a
benefactor will honor an individual or organization that has
been instrumental to the success of the United Way’s mission in
Smith County.”

In spite of the interruption in this year’s campaign caused by
the sudden COVID-19 pandemic, the United Way of Smith
County conducted another successful fundraising campaign.
The 2019-2020 campaign for United Way of Smith County
ended on March 31, 2020, raising a total of $1,516,262. Not
only was the goal for 2019 exceeded, the effort exceeded the
2018 campaign total by more than $250,000!

As concern mounts for a second wave of the pandemic this fall,
the staff of the United Way of Smith County are prepared for
helping local people in need find the resources that addresses
their problems. The staff and volunteers who man the 2-1-1 East
Texas Help Line will remain on the frontline to assist our East
Texas neighbors in need. Should you need services, please don’t
hesitate to call 2-1-1. They will be there, as they have been for
the past twenty-nine years!

Because the local demand for services throughout Smith County
has increased by nearly 300%, due to the effects of the pandemic,
the 2020-2021 fundraising campaign is expected to be one of the
most critical in recent years. The last time our community had
this level of uncertainty about local health and human services
needs dates back to October 1940, when local leaders met at the
Blackstone Hotel and formed the Tyler Community Chest. The
uncertainty facing our community then was because World War
II was raging in Europe. The following year, the United States
was drawn into the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor. This
fall, eighty years later, our community faces the uncertainty of
a virus that has affected virtually every person in Smith County
on some level. The economic impact is harder on some of our
neighbors than others. For that reason, record levels of request
for help are anticipated. More than ever, the United Way of
Smith County will be depending on the generosity of our
fellow East Texans to dig a little deeper and support the partner
agencies, who will in turn be providing the help many of our
neighbors so desperately need.

United Way is now the largest, non-governmental funder of health
and human services in the world. Beginning with the original
$20,000 raised by Tyler Community Chest in 1940, the United
Way of Smith County has to date put more than $65 million
back into the local community. For the entirety of its eighty-year
existence, the United Way of Smith County has been completely
autonomous and governed by a local volunteer board of directors,
comprised solely of concerned citizens who come from virtually
every walk of life. They are good citizens helping other citizens in
order to make a better community for everyone in Smith County.

Visit to learn more about the United
Way of Smith County or to make a contribution to support
their good works.