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Time to care, more than ever

The father holds the cardboard, hand-lettered sign that says, "Will work, family needs food."

The mother, as she cradles the baby in her lap, keeps watch to make sure the two older children don't venture too close to the curb and the traffic flowing just feet away.

This tableau on a St. Petersburg street corner puts a pained, human face on hard times, times that afflict not only families but the social service agencies that are stretching to serve them in times of critical need.

This year, those agencies are having to stretch further than ever. Florida's sparse budget has forced cutbacks at every level just as the number of people without jobs, people with complex health care needs, children who are victims of abuse and neglect is soaring at record rates. A loss of state dollars often means a loss of matching federal support as well.

These factors make now the time for caring, more than ever. That's why this year's United Way campaign is so important. United Way's county organizations around the Tampa Bay region are in the midst of their fall fund-raising efforts, waiting anxiously to see how employer drives are faring under economic hardship, hoping that individuals will be able to continue their "fair share" contributions and that first-time work-site campaigns are fruitful. Donations are just as needed from those whose places of employment don't conduct their own drives, or others such as retired people who have no access to such campaigns.

Though United Way and its member agencies reach out when particular needs arise elsewhere such as in South Florida after Hurricane Andrew, one of the best features of the United Way system is that it serves local people. Contributors may even designate the county in which they wish their money to be spent.

In Pinellas County, for instance, organizers cite statistics that show approximately one out of three residents is somehow touched by an agency or organization that receives United Way money.

It is time to switch the focus from a national organization working diligently to recover from the problems of its past management to the many ways United Way touches people in our communities, among them these:

Meals delivered to the elderly who cannot leave their homes; counseling provided to help families cope with natural and other disasters; shelter for abused women and children; even job training and transitional housing for people who have no alternative but to plead on the street so that their children won't go hungry.

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