Frank Bowens never learned to read as a child. He was diagnosed as having a learning disability and was forced to repeat most of his grade school years.
Despite his illiteracy, he rose to a white-collar job at Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s Sparrows Point plant. He had his secretary read his mail.
Less than a year ago, Bowens, 57, began taking classes at the Learning Place Northwest in northwest Baltimore, where he quickly learned to read and write.
The reading classes were available, he said, because of funding from the United Way of Central Maryland, which today kicked off this year's campaign with a breakfast attended by about 1,000 people at the Omni Inner Harbor Hotel.
The goal of this year's campaign is $33.2 million, 4 percent more than the $31.9 million raised last year, officials said.
"I moved through four grades in less than a year," Bowens said. "Money from the United Way allowed [the Learning Place] to buy books that we were able to take home and read."
The Learning Place Northwest is one of more than 300 agencies funded by the United Way in Baltimore and the five surrounding counties. The money is distributed throughout the metropolitan area and assists about 800,000 people a year.
This year's campaign, which has been been extended from three months to five months, will target 1,800 area companies with 50 or more employees, said Mel Tansill, the United Way director of media and community relations.
"It's even more important now because of limited social spending," Tansill said. "The community has to fill the void."
Norman O. Taylor, president and chief professional officer for the United Way System of Central Maryland, said the United Way is trying to be as "customer friendly" as possible to needy organizations.
"In hard times, we're hoping that the community steps forward and says we want to help," Taylor said.
Today's fund-raising was kicked off by James T. Brady, managing partner of Arthur Andersen & Co. and chairman of this year's campaign, who spoke to the audience while dressed in a clown outfit.
"A clown will do anything for a laugh," Andersen said. "This clown will do anything to raise $33 million for the United Way."