United Way Sr. Vice President of Resource Development Mike Gray is retiring after 35 Years with organization
Chapin, SC (James Bowers) - “Some of this is a little excessive,” that’s what Mike Gray said of all of the fanfare he has received in response to the end of his 35-year tenure with United Way of the Midlands. While the statement is rooted in the humility typical of a servant, it is a sentiment many of those who know Gray would hotly contest. His impact on the Midlands through his service is incalculable.
Gray began his lengthy, fruitful tenure with United Way in 1982. Previously the North Carolina native had worked with the Mental Health Association, another non-profit dedicated to assisting individuals with mental illness. Gray, a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill who also holds a Masters in social work and community organization from the University of South Carolina, began his professional life working for the South Carolina Department of Mental Health. The young Gray oversaw a “halfway house” aimed at helping schizophrenic people adjust to normal life. At the start of his career with United Way he first worked in the organization’s allocations department, assisting with the distribution of funds to the United Way’s numerous beneficiaries. After some time in that role, Gray responded to the need for additional fundraising and thus dedicated his efforts to that end for most of his career with the agency.
Gray said of the transition, " they (the United Way) said we’ve taught you what to do with the money, now we’ll teach you how to raise it.” Gray then put his nose to the ground, heading fundraising drives. During his tenure, he helped raise in excess of $200 million for United Way’s missions since he switched to a leadership role in the fundraising initiatives.
Gray was briefly re-positioned in another role with the United Way during the late 1990s, before moving back to fundraising. Gray initiated contact with many individual donors and businesses,and showed them the way to effectively raise money for the organization’s causes.
The United Way has assisted Midlands residents in nearly every area from employment to education and has three key areas of focus when serving the Midland's most financially vulnerable populations. The first is providing quality access to childcare. For a money-challenged parent, finding suitable accommodations for their children can be a difficult endeavor. The United Way recognized this issue, and Gray was heavily involved in the development of three United Way managed child care centers: Arthurtown, Tender Years, and Children’s Garden. Gray considers the Arthurtown center, in particular, one of the seminal moments of his career. Arthurtown is a neighborhood in close proximity to Williams-Brice Stadium which has long been home to some of the midlands most impoverished families. Many of them face limited educational and professional prospects.
In 1999, the United Way decided to make an effort to improve this problem. Starting from the ground up, they began working on the Arthurtown project. Gray and company pulled together hundreds of volunteers from companies such as Bi-Lo and UPS, teams of non-violent inmates from the South Carolina Department of Corrections, and local individuals, including the unofficial “Mayor of Arthurtown,” Roy Belton, a longtime employee at the Carolina Eastman facility who Gray says spent virtually all of his time of helping with the Arthurtown build.Gray recalls being touched by the spirit of community involvement and outreach shown during the endeavor.
The finished product of that project was a child care center which provided Arthurtown parents with a safe, nurturing environment for their kids. The center is also dedicated to early childhood education, another major area of focus for the United Way. Children at the center have been schooled in fundamental skills such as critical thinking and reading, which Gray identifies as a crucially important ability. “From grades 1-3 you learn to read, from Grade 4 on you read to learn,” Gray says, identifying the importance of literacy. The United Way’s educational programs have played a role increasing literacy rates, academic success, and the number of high school graduates among the Midlands’ vulnerable populations. Several children who benefited from United Way initiatives have gone on to become college graduates.
The third among United Way’s major focus areas is healthcare. Even after the 2010 passage of the Affordable Care Act, many people in the Midlands still are priced out of access to doctors and dentists. The United Way assists its beneficiaries in this area with programs such as the Well Partners Dental and Eye Clinic, which provides dental and optometrist services to people without insurance. It is another important project bolstered by Gray’s efforts.
The United Way is also there in times of disaster. The flooding of 2015 saw Gray and company spring into action, working with other organizations to ensure that those displaced had food and shelter during the horrific event. Once the rains subsided, the United Way was instrumental in the vast number of rebuilding projects carried out throughout the midlands. FEMA said that 50% of its 2015 claims arose in the state of South Carolina as a result of the catastrophe. Gray, again witness to the loving spirit and tireless effort of volunteers, considers this another hallmark of his career.
Gray makes an important point about charitable giving. While a few cynical individuals may be quick to reduce acts of philanthropy as a “handout” that people take advantage of, Gray says the United Way’s efforts are more about change, giving people a leg up in building strong communities.
The announcement of Gray’s retirement, which will take place officially on February 1, 2018 was an emotional affair.Gray was honored with a retirement dinner in December. Additionally, the town of Chapin will honor Mike Gray with a “Mike Gray Day” on January 16, 2018.
For some who have witnessed Gray’s legacy of selflessness, these honors are the least they can do. Gray says even though he will be retired from employment with the organization, he will still be involved in some of the United Way’s projects as a volunteer. For Gray, helping others will be a lifelong affair; an integral part of his DNA.
While he is proud of his tenure with United Way, Gray says that community service is a family affair. Both his parents were involved in humanitarian ventures as he was growing up, and his wife, a longtime schoolteacher in Lexington-Richland District 5, has rescued upwards of 200 animals. Mr. and Mrs. Gray have not only raised two children of their own, but had two foster children and have hosted several foreign exchange students. He has instilled a spirit of goodwill in every one of them, and they themselves take part in philanthropic ventures. With a humble disposition, Gray is not likely to brag about all he has done. However, after crafting a legacy of giving and service, there are plenty of people who will do it for him.