If there's a silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic, it's the way it caused the communiy to pool resources and manpower against a common enemy.

Lake Martin Area United Way raised $573,214.63 for its 2021 campaign, including the $67,617.50 it raised for its Community Crisis Fund as a direct response to the pandemic. It was also the highest amount raised in a decade.

"For the past 10 years, I've never been more pleased in how the community came together, especially during the year of COVID when people were hurting," director Sharon Fuller said. "Our community stepped up in ways they've never stepped up before and not only helped monetarily, but helped volunteer even before we had the vaccine to help other people in our community."

United Way is an international nonprofit made up of a network of community chapters, including Lake Martin Area United Way, to collect funds for local charities, or agencies, and refer citizens to the services in their area. This year over half a million dollars will be going to the 27 Lake Martin area agencies, much of it raised at the height of the pandemic.

"I couldn't believe it, I mean, we were really concerned," board president Nancy Ammons said. While normally the board sets a fundraising target, "we didn't even set a goal because we really didn't know what would happen. Having a record year, that just says what the community's about."

While United Way is unable to disclose the details, a sizeable chunk of that fund came from an anonymous out-of-state donor who was moved by the community's pandemic response.The record campaign also came despite another obstacle — the inability to host large events, which account for about 10% of monies raised in a normal year, Fuller said. That setback was offset by money raised for the Community Crisis Fund, a separate pool of cash created in March the charity could immediately deploy to combat the effects of the pandemic.

"I couldn't be prouder of living in our area and I appreciate all the individuals, businesses, agencies and clubs coming together to raise money," Fuller said.

As for the rest of the 2021 campaign — excluding the Community Crisis Fund — about 60% of that came from employee giving, direct-debited from donors' paychecks through their place of work. This year Russell Lands topped the chart for employee contributions, giving $61,865. The property developer was followed by the City of Alexander City at $31,077, Russell Medical at $25,612 and Russell Brands at $20,763.

Relative to the former size of its workforce, Russell Brands' 2021 employee donation is "amazing and remarkable," Fuller said. Back in its heyday, Russell Brands used to be a one-stop shop for United Way fundraising. In 1999, employees donated $380,551 to Lake Martin Area United Way.

Nowadays, United Way is reliant on a more diversified fundraising strategy, consisting of corporate and individual giving, grants and special events. But what helps, Fuller added, is a community that understands and values the work of the United Way agencies. Indeed, that number has grown.

"The Red Feather leadership, those who give $1,000 or more, has grown from 85 to 175 individuals in the past decade," Fuller said.

As it turns out, the actions of the Alexander City-based charity are far-reaching. On Friday, Fuller received a letter in the mail thanking her for her what she does, from a person in New York she did not recognize. Enclosed were five one-dollar bills — a small sum in comparison to the anonymous five-figure Community Crisis Fund donation, but just as moving. Fuller compared it to the lesson of the widow's mite, the Bible parable in which a woman donates two small coins, "her whole livelihood."

Now that United Way has wrapped up its 2021 campaign, however, it's time to start from scratch for 2022. The next campaign's theme will be "hometown heroes," a nod to the essential workers who were the main protagonists during the pandemic and to this year's "pacesetter" business, Russell Medical.

"That means we are going to try to raise the most money and get the community motivated to give to United Way," said Ammons, who is also RN nurse manager at Russell Medical.

Though Ammons has been involved with United Way for all of the 12 years she's lived in the area, she says she didn't fully appreciate all the charity does until she joined the board.

"Once (you) realize what all it does, you can't help but give," Ammons said.