On Nov. 7, 1962, 20 people sat around a kitchen table in Naugatuck to hash out a plan to support agencies serving Naugatuck and Beacon Falls without duplicating fundraising efforts.
“I think we just saw the need in Naugatuck,” said Anna Lee Van Allen, who along with her late husband, Robert, was among that group of 20 seated at the table in the couple’s kitchen.
On that day in 1962, a united concept of giving was conceived.
In the months that followed, the plan began to take shape and gain acceptance throughout the communities. The concept was simple — establish an organization that would support the agencies through an united front of fundraising.
“So many organizations were begging for our citizens’ dollar and we liked the slogan, ‘Put all your begs in one askit,’ and so it began,” said Robert Van Allen in a video made in 2002.
Out of the 150 people who showed up for a public meeting to discuss the idea held April 25, 1963 at the high school no one uttered a word of dissent. So, five days later, the United Givers of Naugatuck and Beacon Falls was born.
When the United Givers held its first meeting on Jan. 16, 1964 the then-fledging organization reported it raised nearly $99,500 but failed to reach its lofty goal of $125,000. Despite failing to attain its goal, the organization was successful in laying a foundation of giving.
“We feel we have succeeded in initiating an effort that will prove of lasting benefit to the agencies and citizens of Naugatuck and Beacon Falls,” wrote Robert Van Allen, then president of the United Givers, in the first annual report.
Robert Van Allen proved to be a prophet as the organization’s vision of united giving lives on today in the United Way of Naugatuck and Beacon Falls.
The United Way, which up until 1973 was known as the United Givers, is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary.
“For us to still remain viable, efficient and effective it’s a great feeling. … It shows the community believes in what we do,” said United Way Executive Director Lisa Shappy about the milestone.
Shappy became executive director in 2002, after working for 12 years collectively at the Valley United Way and the United Way of Greater Waterbury. Shappy was preceded by Clare Kaufmann, who held the position from 1999 to 2001, and Mary Connolly, who served as executive director from 1989 to 1999.
For Connolly, whose name graces the United Way’s Community Caring Award, the organization’s golden anniversary is one that brings her great satisfaction.
“It’s very gratifying,” Connolly said. “I’m very happy and I’m very proud that the community has supported the organization all these years.”
Kaufmann said the anniversary shows how the community views the United Way.
“It’s a testament to how important and relevant the community sees the role of the United Way,” Kaufmann said.
The 50th anniversary is a milestone that is meaningful not only to the United Way, but to the communities the organization serves as well.
“The United Way of Naugatuck and Beacon Falls has been an amazing institution in the borough for generations. Many lives have been touched and many young minds have been broadened by the generosity of countless donors throughout the years. … On behalf of the borough of Naugatuck, we congratulate the United Way of Naugatuck and Beacon Falls on 50 tremendous years and thank all those individuals who make its charitable and philanthropic efforts so successful,” Naugatuck Mayor Robert Mezzo said.
The bond between the United Way and the town of Beacon Falls has been growing stronger over recent years, as more and more town organizations and business people have stepped forward to partner with the organization, Beacon Falls First Selectman Gerard Smith said.
That bond is one the town is looking forward to strengthening in the years to come.
“The town is looking forward to expanding on the foundation built 50 years ago and making sure it grows for the next 50 years,” Smith said.
Over the past five decades, the landscape in Naugatuck and Beacon Falls has changed. When he helped to establish the United Givers in 1962, Robert Van Allen worked for Uniroyal Inc. Large corporations such as Uniroyal and Peter Paul were fixtures in the community and major supporters of the United Way.
“It was a very, very good time for the United Way and for the community,” Connolly said.
Over recent years, those corporations that were once strong supporters of the United Way have either left or downsized. However, in their place other companies, such as Naugatuck Savings Bank and Naugatuck Savings and Loan, and the community at large have stepped forward to fill the void.
“I think that’s what’s unique about this community — Naugatuck and Beacon Falls — they’ve supported this United Way for 50 years,” Shappy said.
Mezzo credited the efforts of the United Way staff and board members for keeping the organization on track as significant donors left the borough.
“As the large industrial donors have left Naugatuck, the staff and board members of the United Way of Naugatuck and Beacon Falls have gone above and beyond to expand the donor base while maintaining financial commitments to all the groups and organizations that our local United Way supports,” he said.
The United Way has not only forged ahead through the loss of large donors, but through multiple economic downturns as well. Over the years, the organization has thrived while maintaining its independence as other United Ways in the state have consolidated.
The secret to the organization’s success comes down to a good concept, a strong volunteer base committed to the United Way, and being active in the community.
“I think the whole concept is good,” Anna Lee Van Allen said. “I believe in the concept and I think if enough people give together you can do more.”
Shappy said she can be replaced and her position filled by someone else, but if it wasn’t for a core of strong volunteers holding up the United Way, the organization wouldn’t have made it 50 years, especially as an independent one.
“They believe in having this United Way stand on its own and I think that’s important,” Shappy said.
Kaufmann added the active role the United Way and its leaders have taken in the community has helped the organization reach 50 years.
“It’s not an organization that shows up once a year, raises money and doles it out,” Kaufmann said.
The United Way kicked off its 50th year in October at its annual campaign kickoff dinner. The United Way’s goal for this year’s campaign is $425,000, after exceeding its goal during the last campaign, raising approximately $420,000.
The milestone will be celebrated at the United Way’s annual meeting in April. As part of the festivities, the United Way will award Van Allen Medals to 50 people. The medals were created in 2007 to honor the Van Allens and recognize people for extraordinary service to the community as a whole, not just the United Way.
“They were all about helping the community,” Shappy said about the Van Allens. “It was all about making the community a better place to live and work.”