The most wonderful time of the year for many is also the busiest for The United Way of Horry County.
Since 1973, the annual campaign that raises money to fund nonprofit and 501c3 agencies throughout Horry County commences in September and runs through the spring.
The current fundraiser is business as usual with one large and looming exception: It’s the last Olivia Garren will oversee.
Garren, who is described by campaign chairman Mike Poston as “the heart, soul and face” of the organization, will retire from her position as president of The United Way of Horry County. Garren was appointed as executive director in 1980 until her title was changed to president in 2009 by United Way.
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“It’s time,” Garren said of her decision to step down, “for new faces with fresh ideas and energy.”
Before her appointment as executive director, Garren was a part-time secretary for the United Way of Horry County board, a position she took up in 1975, just two years after the organization was incorporated. She never thought her career would span 38 years, though.
“In a way,” she said, “I cannot believe that so much time has passed since I first started.”
She credits her transition from secretary to executive director to the volunteers and a man who mentored her.
“I had a lot of help and guidance from many wonderful volunteers who brought quality ideas and expertise to United Way of Horry County,” she said. “I have been very fortunate to work with and learn from some of the finest business leaders in this fine county. I also had the opportunity to work with Clyde Port, a retired Mobil Oil executive who was a mentor to United Way and me. He gave a lot of time and professionalism to our United Way.”
Garren was born and raised in Horry County and spent her whole life in Conway. Her husband, Barry, was “the boy who lived across the street.” He left for the service while she was attending Conway High School and they corresponded while he was in South Korea.
They will celebrate 50 years of marriage on July 25 and have two daughters, Dawne Oliver and Tammy Hughes, and four granddaughters, Matti, Carly, Mary Susan and Carolina.
Forty years ago, there were 13 organizations supported through United Way and its fundraising goal was set at $149,000.
In 2013, 41 agencies rely on funding, so the need to raise an anticipated $1,275,000 doesn’t surprise Garren, who has dedicated herself to helping others for 38 years.
“The dynamics of fundraising has changed greatly,” she said in a press release that announced her coming retirement. “Key companies have downsized. Needs have grown tremendously, the county has grown tremendously.”
This doesn’t make it any easier for those who must bittersweetly bid farewell to Garren when the fundraising campaign ends in the spring.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do without her,” said Ann Graham, administrative manager at United Way. “Remember the days of mimeograph machines and electric Royal typewriters? That is how long ago I started working for Olivia at United Way. We’re more than a team. We’re family.”
Tracy Lee Vreeland, who took over as marketing and communications coordinator in August, added, “Olivia makes this place a family; when we come in, everyone greets you and we all leave at the same time. I wish I would have had more time to spend with her because being around her as a person, makes you a better person.”
Garren’s impact extends well beyond the walls at 761 Century Circle in Conway. Terri Harris, executive director of Friendship Medical Clinic & Pharmacy, anticipates the impending departure “will be a terrible loss for the community.”
Harris first met Garren more than 11 years ago when she began working at the oldest free clinic in South Carolina. Harris explained the clinic was founded in 1965 due to the efforts of a high school English teacher and a 10th-grade class project at Myrtle Beach High School.
“We were the first recipients of funds dispensed by United Way in 1974,” Harris said.
Harris credits the efforts of Garren, Kay Todd and Ann Graham as contributing to the “strongest United Way in South Carolina,” calling them “a powerful team” with an ability to “reel in strong business partners.”
Harris also said “nonprofits absolutely rely on volunteers,” emphasizing team efforts are what has contributed to the success of United Way of Horry County, which has more than 500 volunteers. “When you think of individuals associated with the Horry County United Way, Olivia Garren automatically comes to mind,” Poston said. “Her wisdom, as well as her calm and steady demeanor, has guided our local United Way through many different eras. Under her leadership, the Horry County United Way has touched countless lives in a positive manner. Olivia cares dearly for the people in our community, and during her tenure at United Way she has worked tirelessly to raise funds for the needy individuals in our county.”
He added: “I have really enjoyed working with Olivia for the past 10 years. She will bend over backwards and do anything for you, and she always treats people with respect. Olivia is the embodiment of everything our United Way is about. She is the heart, soul and the face of the Horry County United Way. She will be dearly missed and I feel blessed to know her.”
The Rev. Ron Bogle, executive director of The Center for Counseling and Wellness, which is in its second year of providing services to residents of Horry County, said it was able to provide $50,000 in free counseling last year. Bogle credits Garren for taking an interest in the center’s mission while noting that in addition to providing first class counseling services to those who need but can’t afford it, the center offers the only child’s play therapy in Horry County. Bogle also said that it was through Garren’s sincerity and dedication that he was inspired to do more for the community as his way of “saying thank you.”
“She will be greatly missed,” said Bogle.
What does Olivia Garren have to say?
“The main driving force of the economic thrust is tourism (for this area). There has been much growth and with that, needs increase. The state of the economy is not rosy to raise money.
“Our organization financially supports the agencies that operate the programs and they are unbelievably dedicated and amazing to work with; I’ve had an awesome opportunity to work with some of the finest people in Horry County and [the past 38 years] have been quite an amazing experience. You feel like you’ve done more than earn a paycheck.”
Garren doesn’t have much specific in mind to do after she retires beyond spending time with family and friends.
Then she added: “I’m sure I’ll find other things and places to get involved.”
Vreeland said Garren is “the most humble person you will ever meet, she treats everyone with the same respect and dignity. No one wants that to change but everyone wants the best for her.”
A new president of United Way of Horry County has not yet been appointed but Vreeland said the search will commence through the efforts of the United Way Association of South Carolina.
“We are losing a cornerpiece of a team that has been building strong since 1975 – we’re past shoes, these are big boots to fill,” Harris said.