The eagerly anticipated event was attended by a record crowd of some 650 in the Walker Arena on the Lee University campus, and Smoltz’s delivery was well received.
The retired athlete’s keynote address was flanked by words of encouragement by additional United Way leaders, among them Matt Ryerson, United Way president and CEO.
“United Way ... supports those who in our community who are most vulnerable,” Ryerson said. “That’s what we’re here to celebrate with the kickoff of our campaign. The beginning of a good work that supports the services and the organizations that literally every day hold the hand of the people who are most vulnerable in our community.”
Ryerson thanked each of those who attended for the work they do in and for the community.
Wednesday’s luncheon served as the “official” start to the United Way campaign, though several companies have already started, and some completed, their individual campaigns. These Pacesetter and Challenger firms were recognized at the festive event.
“We are seeing some early indications that this has the potential to be an excellent campaign,” according to Cameron Fisher, United Way chairman.
Among the early campaign reports highlighted at the luncheon were Athens Federal Community Bank with a 35 percent increase in pledges; the Boys & Girls Clubs of Cleveland with a 46 percent increase; Brenda Lawson and Associates, 3.4 percent increase; Cleveland Utilities, 13.4 percent increase; Cormetech, 5.3 percent increase with only a partial report on pledges; First National Bank, 15 percent increase; and Southeast Bank and Trust, 8.5 percent increase.
Also highlighted was Procter & Gamble/Duracell with a total of $80,961 in pledges with the campaign only 70 percent complete.
In his motivational message, Smoltz encouraged those present to bless others with that which they had been blessed. He said they had an opportunity to make a difference in the community by participating in the United Way campaign.
While Smoltz did not end his career with the Braves, Atlanta is where he spent most of his career as a starter and reliever.
His time on the team opened him up to how to use the platform given athletes in this country. The baseball club would have “Braves Caravans” where players visited a number of different cities during his early career. Smoltz said he didn’t like visiting hospitals at first, but that changed.
“What I realized was that life was going on outside of baseball,” Smoltz said. “What I realized was in that jersey and hat, it wasn’t even me at that time because I wasn’t very good ... this difference for five minutes was so impactful that I and my family would take every opportunity we could to visit the hospital.”
Smoltz’s dreams of becoming a major league baseball player began early.
“At the age of 7 ... I just felt this urge to play professional baseball,” Smoltz said.
Smoltz said his parents were supportive of him pursuing his dream, but encouraged him to have “a backup plan.” At that age, he said his backup plan was to work at a gas station.
Smoltz explained this was in the days when most gas stations had full-service attendants.
He said his parents taught him to be a hard worker.
“I began my career throwing a baseball against a brick wall,” Smoltz said.
It was while throwing against this wall Smoltz envisioned himself pitching in the major leagues.
“I emulated anyone who had thrown a ball. I learned on my own,” Smoltz said. “I played baseball all the time. School was very important. I put God first, then family, school and then sports.”
Later, when he was pitching in the major leagues during tough games and in the World Series, Smoltz said he went back to those games he played out in his head as a boy, and did not get nervous.
“My life (has) consisted of motivation from within,” Smoltz said.
The former All-Star and favorite among longtime Braves fans zeroed in on the importance of teamwork. He pointed to local United Way supporters as an example of a group having a strong impact on the surrounding community.
“What I am getting at is that all of you in this room right now have, through contributions and resources and volunteering, the opportunity to affect so many people … people you may see or people you may never know … but people in your community that you want to see made better,” he said.
Like a baseball team that takes nine people, and possibly more, to win a game, it takes that same teamwork to help in the community through organizations like United Way, he added.
“The game can’t start until I throw the ball, but I have to have those others to stand with me to win,” Smoltz said.
“We need people to do their part, so everyone can benefit, because when people don’t do their part, it’s up to the one. You can do your part by getting involved in organizations and charities and together, make that difference.”
Campaign teams being led by Richie Hughes and Debbie Melton were also introduced at Wednesday’s luncheon. Melton’s team consists of division chairs Margaret Schenck, Pat Fuller, Tammy Bentley, Matt Jenne, Tanya Mazzolini, Dr. Jerome Hammond, and Dan and Janey Cooke.
Hughes’ division chairs are Terry Henry, Taylor Howard, Mike Thomasson, Walt Mauldin, Johnny Mull, Paul Ramsey, Donna Simpson, Kim Spence, Andy Williams, and Don and Lila Lorton.
Nancy Casson is chairing a “special treats” division which will include campaigns working outside of Melton’s and Hughes’ teams.
Other companies serving as Pacesetter and Challenger firms are The Alderman Group, Ace Hardware, Bank of Cleveland, BB&T Bank, Behavioral Research Institute, Bradley County Schools, Church of God International Offices, Cleveland City Schools, Easy Auto, Eaton Electrical, Eaton Hydraulics, First Tennessee Bank, Hardwick Clothes, Lee University, Life Care Centers of America, Manufacturers Chemicals, Regions Bank, SkyRidge Medical Center, Southern Heritage Bank, United Community Bank, Whirlpool Cleveland Division (plant) and Whirlpool Cleveland Customer eXperience Center (call center).
The campaign goal this year is more than $2 million.
As in past years, the campaign chairs will duel in a friendly competition to determine which team will earn the highest percentage of goal. At the campaign’s end, the winner will receive the Big Chief Award.
For more information about the United Way campaign, the organization or its member agencies, programs and special services, contact United Way of Bradley County at 479-2020.