A box office success for United Way: $37.3 million

The United Way of Greater Kansas City rolled out the red carpet Thursday afternoon, playing off Hollywood award shows to announce, under a roving spotlight, that the charity this year raised ... drum roll … $37.3 million.

That’s up 3.5 percent, more than $1 million, from last year. People from more than 1,600 area businesses and organizations contributed.

“Our United Way really did much better than other United Ways around the country,” United Way President and CEO Brent Stewart said. “I’m really proud of Kansas City.”

Stewart also said Kansas City givers had done better than Missourians living “in that big city to the east …”

For the fourth consecutive year, Kansas City campaign organizers did not set a monetary goal but instead challenged donors to consider increasing their individual and corporate giving by 5 percent.

Eighty-one companies hit that mark and got their names on big gold stars that lined the red-carpet walk into the ballroom at the Overland Park Convention Center.

The last time United Way set a monetary goal — $40.5 million in 2008 — it reached its target. United Way raised $35.1 million in 2009 and in 2010. Last year, the charity raised $36 million.

Comedian David Naster played host at Thursday’s event, announcing the biggest corporate and individual fund raisers. Two women in black gowns escorted them on and off the stage.

Three companies raised more than $1 million: Hallmark, $2.6 million; Sprint, $2 million; and Black & Veatch, $1.2 million.

But the big winners, Stewart said, are the many people who are helped every year by the donations made during the annual campaign.

People like foster parents Robert Saak, who told the gathering about the more than 70 children he and his wife, Heather, have taken in during the last decade. He singled out two girls now among his five adopted children: Molly, 5, who was born hearing impaired, and Lanissa, 9, who was just 18 months old when her mother broke both her arms and both her legs.

Saak said the two girls, who were helped through services provided by United Way-supported agencies, are doing well.

Then there’s Sandra Rayford and 17-year-old Ruskin High School student Sena Ford, who were paired by Big Brothers Big Sisters.

“Nine years ago I found myself with an empty nest and I needed something to do,” Rayford said.

That’s when she met Sena, who’d been raised in a single-parent household and needed a friend.

“I had a rough childhood and she was there,” Sena said. “I had lonely days and she was there … she is still here. I just love her. I hope we will always be friends.”

Finally the audience heard from Christina Jones, who learned to read in her late 50s with the help of Kansas City Literacy, one of the 42 agencies and 320 programs supported by United Way. Jones was featured in this year’s campaign video.

A letter Jones wrote to this year’s United Way campaign co-chairmen, Dan Hesse, chief executive of Sprint Nextel Corp., and Jay Lind, financial secretary/treasurer for Sheet Metal Workers Union Local No. 2, was framed and presented to them at the end of Thursday’s victory celebration.

“All I ever wanted to do was learn how to read and understand what I was reading,” Jones read from her letter. “Thank you for the gift of reading. I’m happier at age 60 than I have ever been. On November 6, I voted for the first time.”

Awards were presented to 16 companies and organizations, recognizing their successes in hosting successful campaigns and raising money for United Way.

Hesse, who during the campaign brokered a $20.1 billion deal to sell 70 percent of Sprint to a Tokyo-based company, and Lind each received a T-shirt emblazoned with the United Way slogan, “Live United.” Hesse’s was printed in Japanese.