United Way co-chairs, clockwise from lower left: Genevieve Gauthier, Gavin Armstrong, Jolène Labbé and Stuart McCook. Photo by Susan Bubak

We’re in the last week of the University’s United Way fundraising campaign and there’s a lot of nail-biting going on across campus. Volunteer canvassers and event organizers are readying their last deposits, and the four campus co-chairs are losing sleep waiting to find out if U of G has reached its $550,000 goal.

Co-chair Genevieve Gauthier, secretariat officer and information and privacy co-ordinator, has been through this before. She was also co-chair of last year’s United Way campaign and describes the two-year experience as “stressful” and “joyful.”

“The University’s goal is a huge chunk (about 17 per cent) of the overall goal for Guelph – Wellington – Dufferin United Way. They need $3.2 million this year to keep funding levels stable – more if we expect to meet the growing need in our community.”

Gauthier says she was initially motivated by her own family’s experience with hospice services, but sitting on the county-wide United Way committee has provided new inspiration. “So many people are so committed to the United Way. I’ve met some incredible volunteers – some raising money, some working with the agencies funded by the United Way. Sharing their enthusiasm has been a wonderful experience.”

You can forget the idea that six degrees of separation is the norm for any two people in the world, says Prof. Stuart McCook, associate dean for research and graduate studies in the College of Arts and U of G’s second United Way co-chair. He argues that each of us is only one degree of separation from a front-line service supported by the United Way.

Hospice care, the Alzheimer’s Society and support for the physically disabled are all services important to his family. “My personal experience over the years has shown me how often we rely on social service organizations, many of them staffed by volunteers. They fill the gaps in our communities when government agencies can’t do it.”

McCook and Gauthier have been working for several months with student co-chairs Gavin Armstrong and Jolène Labbé to assist the more than 150 volunteers who co-ordinate the annual United Way campaign and act as canvassers in departments and units across campus.

Armstrong and Labbé have been spreading the message among their peers since orientation week in September. Students they met casually at a first-year event pooled their pocket change for a $208 donation – the first deposit for this year’s United Way campaign. “It was motivation for Gavin and me to feel confident about our $8,000 student goal,” says Labbé, a third-year undergrad in arts and science.

Since then, she and Armstrong have met with student governments, club executives and faculty. Large lecture classes passed the hat to “buy” a lecture topic from their prof. Student groups planned special events, and individual students added a dollar to their bookstore purchases, donated from their meal plan or made a cash gift to the United Way.

A PhD student in biomedical science, Armstrong was a student co-chair last year when he took on the personal challenge of donating $1 a day for a year. “I’ve pledged the everyday hero amount again this year because I know that every dollar raised is important. My gift could provide 15 hours of literacy training or counselling support for three people who have suffered from sexual assault.

“When I talk to other students, I tell them I can justify my pledge by buying one less lunch on campus a week or one less coffee a day.”

Labbé says it’s exciting to be part of the University’s United Way effort: “I think higher learning should be about more than academics; it should also be about learning the needs of your community, giving back and being an active part of it.

“When this happens the whole University becomes more inclusive, expands beyond the boundaries of the campus and really begins to make a difference. I wanted to be a part of the United Way because I think it’s one way the University of Guelph succeeds at doing all of those things.”

The University’s United Way campaign officially closes Dec. 7, but these volunteer co-chairs remind us that last-minute donations will be counted until Dec. 31.