On a summer afternoon in 1969, a group of lakes area community leaders gathered at the Dugout in Brainerd to discuss plans for the Brainerd United Fund’s first fundraising campaign.

Photographed and published in the Brainerd Dispatch, the group included George Bedard, Charlie Peabody, Harold Sweeney, Jim Ireland, Herb Kessler, L.J. Krusemark, D.B. Neff, Ernest Wozniak, Wayne Curtis and Ed Fox.

It’s possible these men had no idea the impact and longevity this newly formed organization would have long after they were gone. This year, United Way of Crow Wing and Southern Cass Counties marks its 50th anniversary here in the lakes area.

The birth of the national United Way movement took place in 1887. Religious leaders in Denver founded the Charity Organizations Society, the first “United Way” organization, which planned and coordinated local services and conducted a single fundraising campaign for 22 agencies.

It wasn’t until 1948 when more than 1,000 communities established United Way organizations. Twenty-one years later, the Brainerd area followed suit.

Tom Kotula was chairman of the Brainerd Chamber of Commerce at the time and lent his support to this new community resource. While Kotula says he doesn’t recall much about that time five decades ago, he said he is glad to see the organization is still active and an asset to families and communities today.

Kevin Thesing has served on the board for the past six years, including two years as board chair.

“It is a testament to the organization and the communities that support it that this local United Way has been doing this for 50 years,” Thesing said in a news release. “I would like to personally shake the hands of all of the individuals that had the foresight to put this organization in action that long ago.”

Thesing said, because United Way covers such a wide variety of opportunities, he wanted to be part of something so integrated into the communities it serves.

“I knew that our local United Way has always, and will always, use the money this community invests through payroll deduction and other financial giving, to support local nonprofits. What has surprised me is how our local United Way works in this community to create awareness and action around things that this area is passionate about.”

Consolidated Telephone Co. CEO Kristi Westbrock, a past board member, joined the local United Way board in 2008 when she started with CTC. Westbrock said she joined the board because CTC had already established a strong support of United Way and she wanted to continue that commitment.

“CTC employees have an overall spirit of giving,” Westbrock said in a news release. “It’s part of the culture that all of the employees have created. Each employee has something that they believe in and want to support, and for the most part, those are programs that the United Way funds. It becomes a great match to take the diversity of what our employees want to support and have an umbrella to do this within the United Way.”

Each year, CTC hosts a campaign kickoff with all employees to reiterate the work of United Way. With contests and games, Westbrock said CTC sets a financial goal and makes the campaign fun and visible.

“There is a real sense of pride in our workforce when we not only reach our targets,” Westbrock said, “but also have the highest number of participating employees in the local United Way drive.”

Nearing her one-year anniversary as executive director, Kim Rollins said she considers herself blessed to work for such a community-focused organization.

“The United Way’s mission is something I strive to live by every day,” Rollins stated in a news release. “By connecting people to people, needs to resources, and experts to advocates this organization is improving lives and advancing the common good throughout Crow Wing and Cass counties. This is an exciting and humbling milestone in that we’ve been a staple in the Brainerd lakes community for 50 years. I want to say thank you to our community for supporting this organization, and we hope to continue this partnership into the next 50.”

Same mission, new name

The United Way will celebrate its 50th anniversary in the lakes area with the annual chili cook-off, as well as a new name.

Rollins said the community has struggled with the geographical specificity of the current name and the board discussed a new name that would better encompass the local organization’s service area.

“Our service area is far broader than our name indicates,” Rollins said. “This poses challenges with buy-in, fundraising, and outreach in areas that don't feel represented by our current name.”

Rollins said the local chapter’s territory encompasses the vast majority of Cass County, including the county seat of Walker located in northern Cass County, as well as portions of Aitkin and Hubbard counties.

United Way of Crow Wing and Southern Cass Counties is now Lakes Area United Way.

The 2019 Chili Cook-Off event will be 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 18, at Westgate Mall.