United They Stand

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Few couples are as united as Maria and Jeff Wilcox. Their lives, individually and together, are molded around the United Way.

They met at a United Way retreat. They hurried up their wedding and postponed their honeymoon to accommodate the United Way's fund-raising schedule.

From the beginning 12 years ago in Seattle, they worked in the same United Way offices until this year, when Maria took over leadership of the United Way in Orange County and Jeff became a senior vice president for the United Way in Los Angeles.

Their jobs require so much time that days can pass before they see one another. Often, they send each other greeting cards on special occasions, promising to celebrate them at a more convenient time.

They have not postponed having children; they've ruled it out altogether. They see the United Way as their life's work, a way of life too absorbing to leave them the time they know it would take to be proper parents.

"I've been in United Way for 24 years," says Joe Haggerty, president of United Way in Los Angeles. "I've seen what happens when a spouse doesn't understand the time demands of the job. It's hard for some partners to get the point, even to see why their spouse would want to do it."

Not a problem in the Wilcox marriage, both say. Subjugating their personal lives to their vocations has not caused the usual marital stress, Jeff says, because "We understand the pressures of each other's work all too well. There's a real empathy there. It's a healthy aspect of our relationship.

"We do have to plan out our time together, but I get the pleasure of having to call my wife and ask her for dates. And I get love letters."

Jeff Wilcox had come to Seattle from his small-town birthplace, Madrid, Iowa, where his father and mother had bought the Register-News, a weekly newspaper, circulation 750. Their four children helped out, and three remain in Madrid running the newspaper they inherited.

But Jeff, the youngest, wanted to leave home. He attended Seattle Pacific University, where he obtained degrees in communications and marketing and wound up hiring on with the United Way in Seattle in 1984.

Maria Chavez had been on the United Way staff for several months by that time. She had arrived there through a roundabout path, having fled Peru at age 11 with her family, then going on to graduate with honors from Boston University and land in Seattle as a United Way staff fund-raiser.

What happened then was a fortunate mistake.

They met at a United Way gathering, where Maria assumed this newcomer was a volunteer, one of the heavy hitters United Way recruits from corporations and other organizations to help drum up support.

"So I was going to take care of him, make sure he had everything he needed, a place to sit, all this other stuff," she says.

From 25-year-old Jeff's point of view, however, an attractive, 27-year-old fellow worker was paying special attention to him, and he responded.

The next day, they had lunch on the waterfront. Three months later, they married.

"Want to know the real story of why it was so quick?" Maria asks.

"He proposed to me, and he wanted to get married after the first of the year. And I said, 'I can't. If I don't get married before September, you don't get me until next March. I've got to run a United Way campaign.' And he said OK, so we got married in August."

They married on a weekend and were back to work Monday morning. They honeymooned for a week in March--after the campaign ended and the next one started. "It wasn't very romantic, but it was what we needed to do," Maria says.

The couple worked together in Seattle until 1988, when they both took jobs with United Way in Phoenix, he to act as liaison with charities that received United Way funds, she to do the least popular of United Way assignments: passing the hat.

It was there that Maria made her reputation as something of a miracle worker. During her 8-year tenure as senior vice president for fund-raising, donations rose nearly 50%.

Haggerty, her boss in Phoenix, was lured away in May 1995 to Los Angeles.

L.A.'s United Way was in trouble.

It had survived bad headlines in 1986, when news broke that several executives had been given personal loans of United Way funds. But in the '90s, the local economy declined, and in 1992, the United Way's national president, William Aramony, was accused of financing a lavish lifestyle with funds from the national United Way treasury. That year, revenue in the Los Angeles area fell by $20 million.

By 1995, donations were down for the fifth straight year and the board hired Haggerty. In his first year, pledges increased by $1 million.

Haggerty soon approached his former aides, the Wilcoxs, to ask whether they would join him.

But Orange County, in much the same sort of revenue swoon, was also seeking help. It wanted Maria, the ace fund-raiser, to take over its operation.

"We had just built a new house in Phoenix," Maria says. "But when this opportunity came up, Jeff said, 'This is what you want, go for it. I'll find a job.' "

He went to work in Los Angeles for Haggerty.

She took on one of the toughest United Way jobs in the country: raising money in Orange County.

Over the past decade, United Way of Orange County has met its fund-raising goal only once. Worse, four times in the past six years it has failed to raise as much money as the previous year's campaign.

A 1993 Princeton University report showed that only six of 85 major metropolitan areas gave less per capita than Orange County to nonprofit organizations. A Times poll last year showed 43% of Orange County residents had made no charity donations at all during the previous 12 months.

"This is a community that is raising less than half the national average, while its average income is above the national average," Maria says.

This makes Orange County the New York of fund-raising: If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.

That, Maria says, is what attracted her.

"I really think I can make a difference," she says. "I don't like easy jobs. I saw this as an opportunity to really roll up my sleeves and do something."

Arriving in Orange County, Maria immediately set several precedents.

She is the Orange County United Way's first female president. Also its first Latino president. Also its first trilingual summa cum laude graduate who was born in Peru but fled a military coup.

And, according to one director, she may have set a speed record in establishing credibility with her new board.

This year's United Way campaign, underway and continuing until March, has been greatly changed and already is showing signs of improvement.

Traditionally, the United Way works as a clearinghouse, going to local corporations and their employees for donations, then distributing the money to local charities.

Under Maria, the United Way has deflected its support from traditional charities and toward specific social issues, such as family violence and community health. Donors can earmark their money for any of the five issues and next year receive a "report card" detailing what their donations accomplished.

Any charity dealing with these issues may apply for a United Way grant but must show not only how the money is spent but also what effect the efforts have had. Example: How many food-bank families were freed from dependence on the bread line?

"People used to give money and not want a lot of feedback for that donation," Maria says. "Now people want to know where it's going, how much it's costing and what difference it's making. It's more a change of the marketplace than anything else. We are responding to our market, to our donors, and in Orange County, they want a lot more accountability than other places."

There is more at stake than money, she says. The money flows willingly when there is a strong sense of community--something she felt in her childhood in Peru but found oddly lacking in the United States as she grew older.

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Maria was born in 1957 into a lower-middle-class Peruvian family--a newspaper journalist and his wife, the daughter of an architect. They lived in a huge apartment tower in Lima, then a city of 1 million people.

"It was very much like growing up in New York or Chicago," she recalls. "Lots of tall buildings, lots of concrete. We walked along city streets to go to school. We played kickball, jacks, marbles--playground stuff."

Right away, however, her life turned toward the unusual.

Her mother, defying the dictates of a Catholic society, obtained a divorce. "This was very unusual," Maria says. "In South America, two people would just not live with one another; they would never get divorced. My mother didn't want to do that. She wanted an opportunity to go on with her life."

Her mother got a clerical job at a civil engineering firm sent to Peru by the U.S. government for an economic study. There she met an American engineer, Ralph Moore.

"He spoke broken Spanish, and she spoke broken English, but I guess it worked OK," Maria says, for the two soon married. At age 3, Maria was adopted by her new father, who had grown up an orphan and intended to spend the rest of his life in Peru with his new family.

That plan ended when, one night in 1968, 11-year-old Maria was awakened by her mother, wrapped in a blanket and taken to an airport crowded with nervous Americans. A military junta had seized power, and Americans were no longer welcome. The last time it happened, Americans had been jailed.

Maria says she doesn't remember much about the flight, only "lots of people, lots of noise, being hungry." But she vividly remembers the plane touching down in Washington, D.C., and not understanding the English being spoken around her.

"Total culture shock," she says. "For my father, it was going home. For my mother and me, it was a terrible uprooting. I was leaving the only life that I knew. They didn't tell me we were never coming back, but I kind of understood that. All of a sudden, I'm in the United States and learning how to eat peanut butter and jelly."

Nowadays, Maria speaks English with a slight accent--a Boston accent.

She excelled in her studies, graduating from her high school as valedictorian, then as summa cum laude valedictorian from Boston University. Studying at the Sorbonne in Paris, she picked up her third language, French.

As part of her scholarship program at Boston University, she was expected to perform some sort of community service. Calling alumni to ask for donations to the university qualified, and she discovered that she loved it.

"You got a free dinner and got to talk to a lot of people," she says. "And I was great at it. I started by asking people for $10,000, people who hadn't given anything before. I always started high. And I got it."

Volunteering to raise money for the Massachusetts Assn. for Children, a charity for abused children, increased her enthusiasm. She decided that after graduating she would start an after-hours school for latchkey children, but when no grants could be found, she took a job in sales training at IBM.

She found her life's work when a United Way representative came to rally donations from IBM employees.

"I said to him, 'You get paid to do this? This is what I want to do. This is perfect. This is my job!' "

She spent a year as a United Way intern, doing research in Greenville, S.C., then helping with a fund-raising campaign in Hartford, Conn. "That taught me what I wanted to do. I loved campaigning."

In 1980, her resume got her a campaign job with the United Way in Seattle.

In 1988, the couple moved to the Phoenix United Way, where Maria became what Haggerty described as "one of the best glue people in the country."

"Glue" as in gluing together the right staff and important community leaders for a successful fund-raising campaign. She personally worked with Jerry Colangelo, owner of Phoenix's pro basketball and baseball teams, who responded in many ways, including lending star athletes to the United Way campaign.

She persuaded locally based America West Airlines to paint one of its airliners with United Way logos.

During her tenure, United Way campaigns experienced double-digit percentage increases each year. The last campaign increased the United Way's take by 12%.

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Bill Wood, vice president of PacifiCare Health Systems in Cypress, was on the committee to recruit a new United Way president for Orange County. He says United Way's national office sent a list of candidates, and what it said about Maria looked very good.

"She'd worked for Phoenix, which had been through a significant change, and she was multicultural and multilingual and was accustomed to dealing with a lot of differing cultures . . . [and] that was important to us."

And she was impressive in person, Wood says. "A rocket. So much energy and confidence."

That she would be a woman operating in male-dominated boardrooms troubled some committee members, Wood says, "but the majority felt strongly that she could scale that wall. She proved that very quickly upon landing here. She really took the reins and started doing all the things you need to do when there are big changes to make."

Maria, who has been on the job just short of a year, says the county has not quite lived up to its reputation of being tightfisted when it comes to charity.

"It is difficult, yes; it is challenging, yes; but I have found that people are willing to listen. People are willing to participate and be supportive if you ask them to be. I don't think people here have been given a lot of information on the whole social responsibility factor."

The wealthy in the county are willing to donate $10,000 and more to arts organizations, and she isn't saying they shouldn't.

"But there should be equal value for organizations that are providing food and shelter. There has to be an equal sense on consciousness and responsibility for organizations that are helping people. And that's my job."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Maria Chavez Wilcox

and Jeffrey R. Wilcox

Her background: Age 39. Born in Lima, Peru; family fled to U.S. after 1968 military coup. Grew up on the East Coast, graduating with honors from Boston University. Discovered her fund-raising abilities doing volunteer work and joined the United Way. Helped direct fund-raising campaigns in Seattle and Phoenix, built a national reputation for success. Joined the Orange County United Way in January to help boost sagging revenues.

His background: Age 37. Born and raised in Madrid, Iowa, where his parents published a small weekly newspaper. Graduated with degrees in communications and marketing from Seattle Pacific University. Worked for United Way in Seattle and Phoenix. Now senior vice president of community development for United Way in Los Angeles.

Together: Married in 1984. Live in Tustin. No children.

Maria, on being a foreigner: "I know what it's like. I truly do. I remember at age 11 walking the streets of Washington, D.C., and not understanding anything people are saying. I had not a word of English. I couldn't read the signs. I didn't know what they were. It makes you nervous and scared."

Jeff, on working with his wife: "The reason it's not an issue is my parents worked together in business [a weekly newspaper], and that's the example I had. She wasn't helping him. It was their newspaper. I was not brought up in the tradition of Mom doing one thing, Dad another.

Maria, on United Way: "This is my life. This is my avocation. This to me is being able to lead an organization that is trying to help people, that's effective, making sure that the social consciousness of a community is there for its people. . . . For me, having the ability to lead an organization that gets people together to help others is what my passion for this business is all about. I love it."

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