WHITE SPRINGS — Throughout his education career with the Hamilton County School District, Rex Mitchell donated to the United Way of Suwannee Valley.
But Mitchell, now the Superintendent of Schools in Hamilton County, admits he didn’t have a big picture view of his giving.
“I don’t think I ever looked at the impact that the dollars I was giving might have on the students in our district,” he said Nov. 8 at the United Way’s November campaign luncheon at the Nutrien Conference Center where it was announced the United Way has received $268,687 — 54 percent — of its $500,000 campaign goal so far.
Likewise, throughout Mitchell’s education career, he saw the district struggling to turn the corner academically for its students while trying every kind of program imaginable.
When he was elected superintendent in 2016, Mitchell said he knew something had to change.
“We had to do some things differently and start looking at it different,” Mitchell said. “The thing we needed to do different was look at the whole child. If a child is hungry, if a child isn’t having their needs met, there is no way they are going to be able to perform successfully in school.”
That big picture view caused Mitchell and the Hamilton County schools to instead of focusing fully on math and reading, the core subjects, they put more of an emphasis on mental health. The district put in a clinic at both Hamilton County High School and Hamilton County Elementary School with a doctor visiting one campus once per week.
“Many of our students that may not have gotten a chance for medical services can see them at school and not miss school,” he said.
Mitchell, who was speaking as a Challenger’s Club member — those who give at least $500 annually to the United Way — also began challenging the 280 employees of the school district to adopt that same whole picture view. He challenged them to give whatever they could, whether it was 50 cents per pay period or $1 per pay period or more.
“Just think about if we take all those dollars together, what kind of impact it would have,” he said.
Dave Cobb, the Challengers Committee chair, uses that same “every donation makes a difference” mantra.
“If we had 50 cents a week from every working person in our service area, we could more than double our goal,” Cobb said. “Small givers are very important to us.”
Those givers — both large and small — have made a difference with the Hamilton County Schools. Mitchell said over the past two years the district has seen a 105 percent increase in the number of donors. The district’s monthly giving has increased 188 percent, while the annual contribution has gone up 192 percent.
“That really came from awareness,” Mitchell added. “We can get so caught up in what we do we can forget to look at the whole picture.”
That giving has also made a difference where it really counts — with Hamilton County’s students, many of whom benefit from the variety of services that United Way member agencies provide.
“We’re responsible for these young people, so we need to meet their needs no matter what they are,” Mitchell said. “At the same time this was going on, our academics went up 11 percent in our district. And I don’t know how familiar you are with school grades, but that is almost unheard of.
“But we actually took a little focus off academics and focused on the services for the students and saw a much better product.”
The United Way has also helped make a better product for youth in Suwannee County with Girl Scout Troop 2351.
When Melanie McLeod and her daughter, Ashlynn, moved to North Florida from South Florida four years ago, there wasn’t a troop in Live Oak or Suwannee County. Ashlynn, now a third grade Brownie, became the first.
Through the support of the United Way — as well as the Girl Scouts of Gateway Council — the Suwannee County troop now has 19 members.
“The only thing she wanted was to continue with Girl Scouts,” Melanie McLeod said of her daughter. “She was the very first Girl Scout in Suwannee County at the time.
“We can’t thank United Way enough because without the support, we wouldn’t be able to have the troop we have now.”
Ashlynn added: “In Girl Scouts, I learn how to be a better person…Girl Scouts can do anything.”