° empty

United Way begins campaign with good food

NATCHEZ — Two thumbs up from her children is the ultimate test for Connie Thomas to see if her jambalaya recipe is ready for the big day.

“They’re the best critics, because they’ll tell you if it’s good or if it’s bad without even thinking about it,” Thomas said. “The last batch I made they thought was good, so I think it’s almost ready.”

Thomas can only cross her fingers and hope that her children’s taste buds are similar to those of the guest judges that will sample and evaluate jambalaya creations of 17 teams at the eighth annual United Way jambalaya cook-off fundraiser.

And the pressure is on for Thomas and her Natchez Council on Aging teammates since they took home the first place award of in the jambalaya competition and the booth decorating competition last year.

But humility is what Thomas said helped the team get the trophies last year and this year is no different.

“You can’t be overconfident going into the cook-off because there’s some wonderful competition out there,” Thomas said. “We’re praying and hoping that we can win again this year, but it’s just so wonderful to see so many people that are willing to give back to the community.

“It’s all about the effort.”

As for the jambalaya recipe that captivated the judges taste buds last year and passed her children’s test this year — well that’s top-secret information.

“We can’t let the cat out of the bag!” Thomas said. “Basically we’re going with a similar recipe as last year, because if it works why mess with it?

“There might be some surprises though.”

The jambalaya cook-off on Friday is a kickoff to the 2012 United Way Community Investment Pledge Drive, a three-month fundraising campaign.

The United Way of the Greater Miss-Lou supports 13 local agencies. The goal of the United Way is to provide a central agency that individuals and businesses can support that then provides funding for a variety of worthy causes.

In previous years, during the three-month fundraising campaign, partnering agencies were prevented from conducting their own individual fundraising events as part of a “blackout period.”

Director Tiffany Mascagni said initially the blackout period made sense because it ultimately cut down on duplicating fundraisers for the same agencies.

“The whole point of the United Way was for people to donate to one organization that would then give to multiple organizations,” Mascagni said. “But things are getting tough for all non-profits, not just here in the Miss-Lou, and after a lot of research we decided to lift the blackout period.”

Some agencies were even forced to dissolve their partnerships with the United Way to be able to host fundraising events to keep their programs afloat, Mascagni said.

With many local non-profits operating on grant funding that is slowly dissolving or being cut completely, Mascagni said the United Way of the Greater Miss-Lou Board of Directors felt it was the right time to make the decision.

“This definitely wasn’t a spur of the moment decision,” Mascagni said. “We researched it with United Way Worldwide and looked at some of the other United Way agencies that made the same decision all across the nation.”

One of the partnering agencies that will benefit from the end of the blackout period is the Guardian Shelter for Battered Families, which hosts the Purple Dress and Pub Crawl in October.

The fundraiser was started after the Guardian Shelter lost a $75,000 grant in 2010.

This year, Program Director Donna Miller said the event had to be rescheduled to April so as to not interfere with the United Way’s blackout period.

“We are very proud to be part of the United Way and very fortunate to have their financial support, but having to try to schedule the events around the blackout period has been problematic over the years,” Miller said. “We were very delighted to hear the blackout period was lifted and this will be a new phase for us to be able to fundraise whenever it fits our needs.”

And with the blackout period lifted, Miller said residents can go ahead and mark their 2013 calendars purple for the month of October.

“Since we’ve already done one this year, we won’t have another purple dress run in October,” Miller said. “We’ll wait until next year, but we’re very excited to start planning everything.”

But until the agencies begin fundraising efforts of their own, all eyes — and stomachs — are on this year’s jambalaya cook-off.

This year’s theme is “First responders — America’s heroes.”

“A lot of our agencies deal with first responders often, so this is another important theme for everyone,” Mascagni said. “The decoration of the booths is just as important as the jambalaya to a lot of the groups that compete.”

The cook-off offers a first, second and third place award for the jambalaya competition and a spirit award for the best decorated team booth.

Groups of guest judges comprised of first responders from the Miss-Lou will judge the jambalaya platters on overall appearance, texture of rice and overall taste.

A donation of $6 includes a jambalaya plate with salad, roll, dessert and a drink. Jambalaya sampling cups can be purchased for $1.

This year’s total goal is $150,000 — with most of that coming from company-run campaigns. Employees of participating businesses can elect to have a specific amount deducted from every paycheck.

Mascagni said that the campaign benefits agencies that assist folks on both sides of the river, and the cook-off is a great way for the community to learn about them.

And with approximately 1,000 people normally gathering for the jambalaya cook-off, Mascagni said she hopes to see similar numbers this year.

“We’ve had great turnout the past few years, and we’re hoping it’s even bigger this year,” Mascagni said. “It’s very competitive and crazy, but once everything comes together it’s all worth it.”

The cook-off is from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Friday at the Natchez Convention Center.

To compete in the jambalaya cook-off, get information about table sponsorships or for any other information, contact the United Way at 601-442-1081.