Before finding his way to the Bluffton Boys & Girls Club, Aaron Jenkins' childhood had few bright spots.
Bullies abounded. So did negativity. And his father was away, serving in the Army. But at the Boys & Girls Club, the skies opened for the Bluffton High School junior.
There, the 17-year-old aspiring chef has developed his culinary chops while teaching younger children about nutrition. He has gained leadership skills as president of a group dedicated to promoting character development and has traveled.
"If not for the Boys & Girls and the support they receive from the United Way of the Lowcountry, I'd probably have been out on the streets," said Jenkins, the club's 2012 Youth of the Year. "It's a safe environment for me, where I can have a male figure as a father figure. It's a positive place where I don't have to worry about bullying and negativity ... and it's put me on a positive path toward fulfilling my goals of being a head chef."
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Jenkins' was one of numerous stories of the services provided by 44 agencies and programs in Jasper and Beaufort counties supported by United Way of the Lowcountry, which on Tuesday kicked off its 2012 campaign to raise $2.8 million.
The Bluffton event marked the last campaign kickoff for Clarece Walker, CEO of United Way of the Lowcountry. Earlier this year, she announced her retirement would be effective in late February, following 35 years of service.
"It's bittersweet to stand before you today," Walker told about 35 people at the Boys & Girls Club. "Working with all you wonderful people, we have made good strides to advance the common good by creating opportunities for a better life for all."
Ninety-seven organizations and large businesses that conduct their United Way campaigns in mid-summer already have raised $711,210, Walker announced.
"We've raised the 'easy money,'" she said. "This community needs a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and this community doesn't back down from a challenge. But to do it, we need new donors."
This year, United Way of the Lowcountry also aims to ensure that at least 80 percent of fourth-graders are reading at grade level; the organization hopes to enlist 600 volunteer tutors in that effort, with the ultimate goal of reducing the high school dropout rate by half within 10 years. More than 200 tutors have already signed up and will begin training soon, Walker said.
"We are investing in the building blocks for a quality community -- helping people meet their basic needs (food, clothing and shelter) while also addressing the front-end issues of education, health and financial stability," said Sandra Chavez, chairwoman of the United Way of the Lowcountry's board of directors.
One out of every three people in Beaufort and Jasper counties benefit from the United Way, according to Chavez, but only one in 10 contribute.
Additionally, half of the children in Beaufort County and three-quarters of children in Jasper County qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, according to Peter Post, chairman of the fundraising campaign. At least one-third of adults who live or work in the Lowcountry are the lowest literacy level, and about one-fourth of children 5 or younger live in poverty, Post said.
"We are in the life-saving business," he said. "We make a difference, and we need (people) to come together to do it."