Clarece Walker recalls a few years ago when the United Way of the Lowcountry was in the middle of its annual fundraising drive and a man walked into her office with a little girl perched on his shoulders.
"My daughter has something to give you," he said.
The girl handed Walker her piggy bank.
"You just never know what is going to touch someone's heart," Walker said.
Never miss a local story.
Such moments stand out for Walker as she contemplates her Feb. 27 retirement from Lowcountry United Way after 18 years as chief executive officer. In all, she has served 35 years with the organization, including 14 years with United Way Central Carolinas in Charlotte.
It started when she was a volunteer with the Junior League in Gastonia, N.C. She fell in love with United Way during a part-time project, and says she's never considered doing anything else since then.
In fact, Walker says she has no idea -- besides traveling and spending time with family -- what she will do after she steps down.
A UNIFYING INFLUENCE
The CEO position in the Lowcountry came open about the same time her husband retired, and Walker said she saw a chance to reinvent and expand the local organization, which serves Beaufort and Jasper counties.
During Walker's tenure, annual donations rose from about $768,000 to $2.5 million and went from assisting 13 agencies to about 40, according to a news release announcing her decision.
"We're a small organization, but we are successful because of not only the treasure but the time that people so generously give," Walker said. "We are a community so rich in talent and expertise, and it is just so seldom that someone is asked to serve that they do not serve."
That committed volunteer base, combined with cooperation among local agencies, has helped get United Way through the economic downtown, she said. When resources started drying up in about 2008, Walker said the organization pushed member agencies to work together to better meet the growing needs of the community.
Kristen Dubrowski, Citizens Opposed to Domestic Abuse's CEO, said the cooperation Walker encouraged has strengthened the network her organization uses to help women and children, as well as those of the Child Abuse Prevention Agency and Hope Haven of the Lowcountry, a rape crisis center.
"She has worked closely with our organization and CAPA and Hope Haven to really build up a domestic-abuse-prevention coalition," Dubrowksi said. "She's shared her knowledge and experience and advocated for us."
The Deep Well Project's executive director, Betsy Doughtie, said Walker's leadership has been invaluable for raising money and pooling resources. Deep Well helps Hilton Head Island residents seeking emergency assistance for utility bills, home repairs or other needs.
"She's pulled all the agencies together, so we work with any of the other 39 United Way agencies to help more people than Deep Well could ever do on their own," she said.
REPLACING THE 'FOUNDER'
A committee is beginning a national search for the next CEO. The plan is to have a transition period, in which Walker and her successor work together.
Board Chairwoman Sandra Chavez views Walker as a "founder" of the United Way of the Lowcountry, because of how much the organization has grown under her leadership.
"Founders are tough to replace, so you don't look for the replacement, but you do look for the person who is going to build on the foundation and the principles and the mission that founder has embedded," Chavez said.