Steve Parr

Steve Parr, right, executive director of United Way of Wayne County, listens as Capt. Sherrie Stokes of the Salvation Army explains how toys and gifts donated through the Angel Tree project will be handed out to children today. The Salvation Army is one of the recipients of the United Way’s Community Fund.

Steve Parr, the face of the United Way in Wayne County for the past 30 years, plans to retire on March 1.

Parr, executive director of the nonprofit, has actually invested 38 years of his life to the cause of improving the lives of others, since discovering his passion working for the United Way in West Palm Beach in 1981.

He grew up in Wilmington, Delaware, attended the University of New Hampshire and earned a degree in hotel administration. Early jobs included contract food service and sales, all within the hospitality industry.

But the routine of working 12-hour days and having to hire and fire people left him lacking.

“I recall a phone call with my father and I said, ‘Dad, there’s gotta be something better,’ ” he said. “I knew here in my heart, this is not what I’m cut out for. I’m not here for this.

“I said to my dad, there’s gotta be something more rewarding than a paycheck.”

The conversation actually helped turn the tide, he said.

“At that time there was a structure at United Way of America, that’s what it was called back then,” he said. “The second in command was a guy by the name of Gus Shea. He and my dad went to college together in New Hampshire and my father called him and explained to him (about me) and Gus Shea took me under his wing, brought me down to D.C., kind of gave me an orientation and talked about United Way work.

“I never looked back because if you’re going to be in this line of work you have to be in this line or work with a passion to impact people’s lives and if you don’t, then it becomes a job and if it’s just a job, you’re not going to be successful.”

The position he has held for nearly four decades is challenging to define.

It’s not sales. It’s not social services.

And many may be unclear about exactly what role United Way plays and what it does. In one sense, it focuses on education, financial stability, health and wellness and the basic needs of area residents.

Parr has his own interpretation.

“Probably, people could look at it as a convener for a community, to be that light that is shining — here are the issues in our community, here are the needs in our community — let’s shine a light on the suffering that’s in our community,” he said. “Let’s shine a light on the lives of people that are struggling, that are working and still struggling, and say as a community, how do we come together and bring people together and impact those people’s lives to make them better?

“That’s what I would say United Way is all about, impacting lives, believing that we can make a difference and investing resources to make that happen.”

For many years the central theme of the agency was on fundraising, in a sense eliminating multiple drives for the many needs around the county.

That has changed drastically in recent years. Instead of signs posted around the county bearing thermometers that measure the donation process, the outcome is people-centric. Making a difference in the lives of others is a fitting legacy to leave with, Parr said.

He announced his retirement to his board in mid-August. Greg Shackelford, board chairman, said a successor could be named as early as this month.

There is much Parr will miss, he said, but the time is right, especially since his wife, Susan, is also retiring from her job at Wayne UNC Health Care on March 1.

“We’re in a good place,” he said of the United Way. “We know that the community supports what we do.”

Despite challenges and obstacles, like the economy, he said there have been numerous highlights over the years, places and organizations that benefited from the support of United Way.

“I can look back and Wayside Fellowship Home, which doesn’t even exist any more, Wayne Opportunity Center, when they needed help with the building, the expansion of Meals on Wheels in Mount Olive, we established the Bank on Wayne program and 20 years ago, United Way getting a planning grant for Partnership for Children,” he said. “These are just the big things.”

One of the greatest assets was, and remains, the many volunteers who sustain the programs, Parr said.

“Over time we have got volunteers involved and all we have got to do is ask them,” he said. “Without them, you have got nothing.”

A floating reception will be held to celebrate Parr’s career with United Way on Feb. 22 at the Firehouse, from 5:30 until 7:30 p.m., with a program beginning at 6 p.m. Anyone interested in attending is invited to contact Patty Graham, community engagement director at United Way, at 919-735-3591 or email patty@unitedwayne.org.