What do you think of these days when you hear the words "United Way"? What I want you to think about are James, Sanju and Rhonda.

James has been going to the Bryant Early Learning Center off Richmond Highway (Route 1) since he was 22 months old, and tests then showed he was already a year behind other toddlers in many developmental areas. The Bryant Center, which receives support from the United Way Fairfax/Falls Church Community Impact Fund, has worked with James for three years, and the staff there expects him to have caught up with other children his age by the time he enters kindergarten in September.

Sanju, after being laid off from two jobs, knew he needed training for another job. So he enrolled in the Training Futures clerical course developed by Oakton-based Northern Virginia Family Service. Sanju gained computer skills; learned bookkeeping, filing and basic accounting; has interned with a local business; and is ready for a new career. More than 400 people have graduated from the Training Futures program, which is supported by the Community Impact Fund, and 91 percent have found full-time employment.

Rhonda escaped an abusive husband and found protection for herself and two young daughters at a shelter. They stayed there for the maximum time allowed -- 60 days -- and faced the prospect of living in a car. Instead, Rhonda received assistance from Homestretch, a Falls Church-based agency that is supported by the Community Impact Fund, to rent an apartment close to work. She enrolled in Homestretch's budgeting class and a workshop for low-income, first-time home buyers. Rhonda and her daughters are proud of the two-bedroom condominium they now call home.

These success stories are not unique. In Fairfax and Falls Church, some of the most affluent parts of this country, more than 31,000 residents live below the poverty level. More than 10 percent of families run out of money for rent, the mortgage, utilities, food and medicine at least twice a year. More than 1,000 families are on Fairfax County's waiting list for subsidized child care. More than 2,000 people are homeless.

And more than 28,000 public school children -- 19 percent of the enrollment -- come from low-income homes and receive free or reduced-price lunches at school.

After spending almost 18 years as an elected official in Fairfax County, I know all too well about families that need help making ends meet, that need affordable child care, that need job training assistance. I also know all too well that government will never be able to meet all those needs. We must depend on the community to help the neediest among us survive and to help them achieve self-sufficiency.

That is where the United Way comes in. It is an efficient way to direct resources to the most pressing needs in our community, but it is important to see the impact those resources can have on the community.

This year dozens of programs in the Fairfax-Falls Church area and more than 300 around the Washington area will receive some United Way assistance to promote self-sufficiency for the disabled and the elderly and support families with young children.

In Fairfax and Falls Church, 87 organizations applied for more than $1.5 million in funding last year, and United Way was able to help 45 programs with about $666,000 in funding.

Along with other campaigns in the Washington area, the 2004 United Way Fairfax/Falls Church campaign runs from September through December. I am part of this effort because I know there is no better way for the community to help its neediest residents.

The United Way of the National Capital Area has made tremendous strides in administrative management, financial efficiency and community oversight since 2002, and it remains the best way for this community to mobilize resources to improve lives.

James, Sanju and Rhonda deserve nothing less.

Next month, the United Way Fairfax/Falls Church will kick off its annual campaign with a new chairman, former Fairfax County Board of Supervisors chairman Katherine K. "Kate" Hanley of Reston. In this essay, she discusses the importance of the fundraising campaign and who is helped by it.