Margaret Ann O'Neal
Chris Jackson/ The Register-Herald
Margaret Ann O'Neal talks about her time as the executive director of the United Way of Southern West Virginia with The Register-Herald Thursday. O'Neal, who has been the executive director of the Beckley nonprofit, accepted a position as the new executive director of the United Way of Central West Virginia located in Charleston.
Margaret Ann O'Neal accepts position at United Way of Central West Virginia

By Wendy Holdren
BECKLEY REGISTER-HERALD

July 7, 3017

Margaret Ann O'Neal, a woman who's dedicated the last nine years to the United Way of Southern West Virginia, has resigned her post as executive director.

Starting Aug. 21, she's signing on for a new challenge in Charleston, still with the United Way, as executive director of the United Way of Central West Virginia. She'll oversee efforts in Kanawha, Putnam, Boone, Logan and Clay counties.

"I wasn't looking," O'Neal said of the new job. The retiring CEO and a few others reached out to O'Neal, asking her to apply. After some soul searching, she sent her application and was given an offer.

"My hope is, probably the biggest reason (for accepting the job), with that role in the Capitol, we can elevate all the United Ways in the state to a higher level of service. There isn't a statewide association. We meet and share best practices, but this seems like the natural transition to end my career."

She sees the new position as a way to be more proactive with the state government and any legislation that could potentially impact the United Way's donor base.

"We want to make it as easy as possible for people to give. Having a chance to be more participatory in that, to help elected officials understand how important United Way work is across the state millions go back into service organizations in West Virginia because of United Way."

Last year, O'Neal said the 14 United Ways across the state raised almost $11 million.

As the state continues to struggle financially, she said it's more important now than ever to have a strong voice in the capital city. She believes she can be that voice.

When she started at the United Way of Southern West Virginia nine years ago, she said the fundraising campaign set a goal of raising $325,000. This year, the goal has reached $860,000.

"That alone gives you an idea of what's happened to the need."

She hasn't had an opportunity to examine the numbers from the central part of the state, but she plans to hit the ground running her first day on the job.

Some of the issues she's seen in southern West Virginia, like substance abuse, are a consistent challenge across the state. She plans to learn about other challenges specific to the central region by talking with the people who work, live and teach there. She'll also be talking with area youth and donors.

"When the suggestion was made, I relied on my faith. I hit send on my resume, and I gave it to God that day," O'Neal shared. "I believe it's what I'm supposed to do."

O'Neal, a lifelong Oak Hill resident, started her career in Beckley in 1990 at the WJLS radio station as a sales manager and morning co-host. From there, she became a volunteer and bereavement coordinator with Hospice of Southern West Virginia.

"I spent a lot of years making sure people had the best quality of life before death," she said of her time at Hospice. When the previous executive director left the United Way of Southern West Virginia, she said she decided to apply.

"I was reminded very quickly a lot of living goes on before the dying. I forgot about the hungry kids. I was reminded quickly there was a lot of work to do, and someone needed to do it."

The vivacious 56-year-old spent the last nine years as a champion for southern West Virginia Raleigh, Fayette, Wyoming, Summers, Mercer, McDowell and Nicholas counties trying to uplift its nonprofits, its residents and its children.

A conversation with O'Neal rarely ends without a reference to a baby in need of diapers or a child in need of shoes.

"We spent almost $15,000 on new shoes in 2016. Kids are wearing flip-flops in the snow. Teachers are seeing kids with holes in the soles of their shoes. Gym teachers are promoting physical activity, but one teacher said he saw three sisters using the same pair of shoes for gym class."

In southern West Virginia especially, she said the root cause of the need must be addressed. She said there are more unemployed adults, who are eligible and able to work, than there are employed adults in the region.

"Until we can swap that stat ... the need will grow."

She said the message and mission of the United Way will continue, both where she's going and where she's leaving delving into what has caused high levels of poverty, unemployment and apathy.

"West Virginia is better than that," she said, noting how the Mountain State clearly demonstrated its ability after the June 23, 2016, flood.

"I don't want us to have to have a disaster to cause people to just be humble and kind."

She considers her greatest accomplishments while at the United Way of Southern West Virginia the establishment of a permanent office space, and the creation of the organization's biggest fundraiser, Dancing with the Stars.

After donors pulled together to raise the funds under O'Neal's leadership, the United Way moved into its permanent, rent-free location at 110 Croft St. in Beckley in December 2015.

"United Way has a presence, close to the city, where people know where to find us. This house, this office, is paid for so that no donor dollars go into a rental. It's huge for any nonprofit. That's an asset they never had before."

Dancing with the Stars, now in its sixth year, netted $197,000 last year.

As O'Neal talks about the event, she quickly adds that tickets are on sale now for this year's event, Sept. 22 at the Beckley-Raleigh County Convention Center. Each year, she hopes to see the fundraising total exceed the previous year.

Although her replacement has not yet been selected, O'Neal is confident whoever serves in the position will bring a new set of strengths and a new vision.

"And this staff, they were here when I got here and they will be there when I'm gone. They're fantastic. The work and the mission will go on strongly."

She said her hope going forward is that southern West Virginians will highlight the positives of the region, but continue to work on the issues.

"There's nowhere to go but up."

She's currently working with Realtors in Charleston to relocate. She knows she'll miss the area, but she feels like this is the right move.

"I just want to say thank you. This community accepted me, loved me and supported me. I'll be forever grateful... For me, I just have to help people. I'll help people wherever I am."

Email: wholdren@register-herald.com; follow on Twitter @WendyHoldren


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