Beneficiary lauds Centre County United Way as campaign kicks off

Aaron King wanted to study criminal justice until he saw his infant daughter struggle for life.

Audrey King, born 12 weeks premature in 2011, spent her first three months in an incubator. Developmentally delayed, she then received speech and physical therapy.

Her father knew a thing or two about therapy, having been severely wounded in Iraq in 2003 while in the Marine Corps. Inspired by his girl’s fortitude, he switched his major at Penn State to rehabilitation and human services. He graduated in May.

“After seeing what she went through, and the determination that little girl had with only months of her life under her belt, that motivated me,” he said.

King, a Bellefonte native, shared his family’s story Monday at the 2013 Centre County United Way campaign kickoff at the Lodge at Tussey Mountain.

His daughter, now about 30 months old, benefited from Strawberry Fields Inc., a State College nonprofit that offers, among other programs, early intervention services for children. It’s one of 34 Centre County United Way partner agencies that rely on assistance from the annual fundraising campaign.

“This speech is actually about the people that you help,” King told his audience starting out. “With your donations, it has helped my family.”

At the dinner, the charity announced the total raised by its Pacesetter campaign. Employees of 33 local companies, including the Centre Daily Times, contributed $530,096 toward the overall goal of $2.1 million for the 2013 campaign, which runs through next January.

United Way Executive Director Tammy Gentzel said the Pacesetter sum almost matched last year’s amount, despite losing three companies, two of which switched to the fall campaign.

“So we’re really, really happy with where we are now,” Gentzel said.

Before the campaign began, the United Way was rocked when its former finance director, Doris Conner, was charged in July with spending $17,000 of the charity’s money over a decade for personal expenses.

But Gentzel on Monday said she has heard no reservations from the public or local businesses about giving to the United Way.

“We’ve worked really hard to gain people’s trust, and it seems like we’re doing that because we’re getting a lot of support,” she said.

King urged attendees to give, saying the night was “about everyone that you help out with your donations.”

He recalled the pain of discovering Audrey couldn’t move or communicate like other children her age, leading him and his wife, Amanda, to turn to Strawberry Fields for testing and then help.

Through arduous therapy sessions, Audrey took her first steps. She still receives speech therapy and can’t yet speak completely, but now knows sign language.

Over time, she bonded with her therapists, so much that she gave one a teddy bear from her toy box in gratitude.

“She’s the biggest fighter that I know,” King said.

But his daughter wasn’t his only example of the United Way’s influence.

King works as a direct support professional at Skills of Central Pennsylvania, another United Way partner agency which provides homes, work and long-term support for people with disabilities.

United Way donations, King said, support day outings for residents of the organization’s group home, and an employment program that places clients in meaningful local jobs.

He said the three men in his care are “the highlight of my day.”

“No matter how hard it is when I go into work, even if I’m working a 16-hour or 18-hour shift, all my cares go away because those guys are my life right now,” King said. “They’re family to me, and they’re family to my wife and daughter.”

King finished with a quote from Joe Paterno: “Believe deep down in your heart that you are destined to do great things.”

Dianna Meckley, a Pacesetter campaign co-chairwoman, took the microphone after King and told him, “God bless you for what you do.”

“You and your family are what United Way is all about,” she said. “You are a living, real example of what our partner agencies are providing to hundreds of people in Centre County every day.”

Gentzel, who had heard King speak before, thought the same.

“One of the reasons we reached out to him and asked him to come forward,” she said when introducing King, “is because when I heard him speak the first time, he reminded me so much of the people who access United Way programs that our partner agencies serve — really hard-working, really good people people who run up against some tough times and unexpected challenges.

“And with a little bit of extra help they can make it through those challenges and succeed and do wonderful things with their lives.”