It was like a brick through a thick glass window. By the way he told the story, it was like, this is important.
Art Christoffersen and I had both worked at McLeodUSA, a telephone company in Cedar Rapids. He was known for his work in the phone book side of the business, merging dozens of phone book companies across the country using a very successful model.
When the company went through bankruptcy, we all went our separate ways, and five of us rented an office to figure out what we were going to do next. Earlier on, my boss at the time suggested getting Art to help me, and I was excited about the possibility of learning to do deals “the Art way.” I really wanted to work with him, and during a lunch meeting some time later, he asked if I wanted to partner with him. I agreed right away — so we started looking at different businesses and bought this lip balm company in January of 2003.
Today, many know that Raining Rose is an avid supporter of United Way of East Central Iowa, an organization we’ve been connected to for close to 15 years. At first, though, I was kind of on the fence about United Way because it’s rare that we invite organizations in and promote on their behalf. At the same time, I was guilty of “I don’t need to listen — I’ll give on my own,” but I wasn’t really following through.
What really turned it for me was when Art stepped up the first time we did a United Way campaign. I knew he had been a strong supporter behind the scenes, but up until that point, I never really knew why.
During that campaign kickoff in front of our company of 20-25 employees, he told a very simple story. He had grown up in a family where his dad was abusive to his mom. I don’t know the specifics, but I think there was alcoholism and physical abuse involved, and finally one day, his mom said, “I’m done.” She kicked him out and raised the kids by herself. She was a nurse and would work the night shift, with the older kids helping the younger get through.
He said he watched his mom make all these sacrifices to raise them and that there were no organizations like United Way. He basically said, “I had too much of a firsthand seat to how hard it was for her and the sacrifices she made for us. United Way supports the very organizations that my mom needed and could have relied on to help her turn a corner. That wasn’t there at the time, and I want to make sure we give so that women in my mom’s situation don’t have to face what she did.”
I can’t do the story nearly the justice, but it was incredibly heartfelt because it wasn’t about how his upbringing was hard but about what his mom did, and just the fact that there were no safety nets in place, which United Way provides.
Fast forward to April of 2005: We were going to Boston to participate in a conference and receive our first company award. Art had a heart stent put in a month or so before, and when we were getting ready to leave, he told me there was something going on and that he’d have to stay. He and his wife Terri didn’t go, and I attributed it to the heart stent. My wife Ann and I went, and when I got back, he told me we needed to talk. Apparently for a stent, they put you on blood thinners, and the blood thinners caused bleeding that revealed a heartbreaking reality: esophageal cancer. In an indirect way, they stumbled into it. That was in April, and then on December 21, he passed away.
When it came to United Way after his passing, it was one of those things where it was important to him. He was honoring his mom, and to me, it was a way to then honor him. That’s when it became pretty personal from my perspective of maintaining the momentum.
What’s great about United Way is that anyone can get involved, and promotional items play a valuable role in the process. I personally think one of their most effective campaigns in the time I’ve been involved with them was the year they had red wagons. They had little red wagons that you could put on your desk all the way to big ones, and the tagline was: “Pull, push, or ride. Everyone’s a part of United Way.”
That really resonated for me, partly because around that time, my brother-in-law was diagnosed with ALS, and he was very quickly confined to a wheelchair. He and my sister ended up using a United Way agency in Charlotte where they lived to get him to doctor’s appointments. No one expects they’re going to be a recipient of United Way, and I just thought it was a really effective campaign because it kind of said, “You’re all involved. It just depends on what role and what time,” and they used promotional products to communicate that. Many here at Raining Rose have their own personal stories regarding their connection to United Way, and they are powerful. It’s a really good reminder of the true impact our support is having.
United Way of East Central Iowa partners with some phenomenal organizations. Ann, my wife, is on the board of Kids First Law Center, and it’s a resource Art’s mom probably would’ve benefited from. It’s a law firm that represents the children in high conflict divorces and provides counseling for almost every divorce. They do phenomenal work. The overall impact of United Way is equally impressive, as it seeks to break the cycle of poverty throughout the region in the areas of education, finances, and health. In 2017, for instance, 887 eastern Iowa households were kept out of shelters or avoided homelessness thanks to the work of this organization. Results like this drive us to give and attribute to our recognition as a Pacesetter company in the past and our ability to raise more than $42,000 for United Way this last year.
What I’ve really liked about our group and the people who’ve led the campaigns is they really work hard to come up with something creative. It feels like our campaigns are constantly reinventing themselves. For example, the year we had a dance-off, the leader really invested himself in the cause and made that a very successful campaign. We’ve also done pies in the face, head shavings, and dozens of smaller activities throughout the year, including United Way’s Day of Caring, to get people engaged on a personal level.
With all that United Way stands for, it only makes sense for us to help those in our community who need it, honoring Art and his mom as we do.
Chuck Hammond is the owner and CEO of Raining Rose, a full-service manufacturer of personal care products based in Cedar Rapids, IA. He has led the company for 15 years, showing his dedication to his employees and customers through periods of change, including extensive growth and a city-wide flood. In recent years, he was named the 2013 Iowa Small Business Person of the Year and also received the 2016 Howard Hall Excellence in Business Award. He has previously served on boards for the Cedar Rapids Science Station, Cedar Rapids Country Club, and Human Services Campus through United Way, and he currently serves on the Tanager Place Operating and Foundation boards.