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HUNTINGTON — Throughout a five-stop journey of grant-funded programs Thursday, donors became emotional as they saw some of the places their money was going.

For the first time, United Way of the River Cities hosted a daylong bus tour for donors to visit the programs that received grants in July 2021. United Way provides resources to reduce poverty in Cabell, Lincoln, Mason and Wayne counties in West Virginia and Lawrence County in Ohio.

Courtney Wurts, manufacturing trainer, attended the tour on behalf of donor Vertiv.

“You always hear about the need. You always know that these things are out there, that are unfair to children,” Wurts said about her experience Thursday. “I’m a single mother and I raised two kids of my own. I’ve been on welfare … I’ve had really low points.”

Wurts said she would go on another tour, because what she learned is that its purpose is not to necessarily see where the money is going, but more importantly why the money is needed.

Program organizers were also emotional as they explained how engaged they are in the community they see every day.

The bus stopped in Ironton for the group to learn about Backpack Buddies, which provides food to children who have limited to no food during weekends. The nonprofit also hosts clothing giveaways to provide clothes, from newborn to teenage sizes.

Program director Jodie Hunt said Backpack Buddies supports 17 schools in Lawrence County and reaches about 350 kids daily. She said several students in the area are considered homeless.

“We just want kids to know that we are here, that we care about them and want to make a difference in their lives,” Hunt said. “They are struggling with just the basics, to make it every day, to get the food that they need and to get an education.”

Wurts lives in Lawrence County and is familiar with Backpack Buddies.

While inside the organization’s home, Wurts had a flashback of the time she had a $22 weekly budget for her and her two children. She said the same SpaghettiOs cans and ramen noodles were going home with her children.

“It takes special people like that to volunteer their time to know they’re not getting paid back, and then it makes you really sad about our area to know that there’s people in these situations,” Wurts said.

Over two dozen children were in the inside gym playing dodgeball as director Bill Booth showed donors around Community Mission Outreach.

Booth led the eight donors through the kitchen, where families walk through and pick their food for the week, the outside freezer, pantries and free clothing closet for their clients. He also talked about the recent addition of food delivery services.

The outreach noticed a need for food delivery services for clients who have disabilities, require assistance or have limited access to transportation. Community Mission Outreach developed a home delivery program this year with the help of a grant from Pallottine Foundation of Huntington.

Riverside Recovery Services of Chesapeake, Ohio, has partnered with Community Mission Outreach to provide transportation and volunteers for food delivery.

Danny Newman, who is in charge of the organization’s finances, also teared up when talking about the many families who express their gratitude to the outreach and say they wouldn’t survive without Community Mission Outreach’s help.

“We appreciate all that all of you do for us,” Booth said to the donors. “It’s needed. I can’t do it without you.”

Executive Director Mitchell Webb of Huntington City Mission spoke to the group about the increase of meals needed in the Huntington community.

According to Webb, the number of meals provided has doubled in the past four years. He anticipates the organization will provide 225,000 meals in 2022.

Webb said the need of food is due to the increase of homeless people, families who struggle to make ends meet and those in recovery centers.

United Way of the River Cities and donor representatives also visited two high schools — Spring Valley and Huntington — that were recipients of the 2021 Big Cover Up awards.

The Big Cover Up started two decades ago as a partnership between United Way of the River Cities and Advantage Toyota, and is offered to schools in Cabell, Wayne, Lincoln and Mason counties in West Virginia and Lawrence County, Ohio.

Bill Rosenberger, director of resource development at United Way of the River Cities, said the goal is to host at least four donor bus tours every year.

“We’ve been planning for this since before COVID. The idea of giving our donors this experience, letting them see where their dollars are going and the impact that it’s making — that type of engagement just hasn’t existed for United Way,” Rosenberger said. “Today was just really special, to get these representatives of our partner companies on that bus and to react together, laugh together and cry together.”

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