Volunteer spotlight: Waid Harbison 

Waid Harbison sits in his office at United Way of Cullman County’s headquarters, located in the historic train depot in Cullman. (Cayla Grace Murphy)

When Waid Harbison took the position as executive director of the United Way of Cullman County, he had one goal: to give back and continue to encourage people to invest in the community that invested in him.

He’s no stranger to hard work, boasting a stacked volunteer resume that spans over 12 years. In just the last year Harbison has organized projects like canned food drives and given out free school supplies to local schools, assembled task forces addressing falling literacy rates and health inequities, and is responsible for the second-highest year of fundraising in the United Way of Cullman County’s 45-year history.

Harbison said his passion for having a servant’s heart is closely tied to his faith and his closeness to the community. “My faith is really important; I like to think of how I can be the hands and feet for them… I’m happiest when I’m serving, volunteering and giving back,”

Harbison said that while he’s served on a variety of boards and committees, nothing matches the feeling he gets when he gets to serve with the church.

“I really do like volunteering with church, especially youth. I’ve been a youth volunteer, taught Sunday school, served as an interim youth director,” he smiled. “I really just like being able to help youth one on one.”

While the fruit of a volunteer’s labor is rarely seen at the time, especially with youth groups, Harbison said that one of the most impactful one-on-one experiences he’s had has been volunteering with teens and standing in the gap for those experiencing suicidal thoughts. By listening, offering reassurance and letting them know they weren’t alone, he’s been able to witness some of incredible milestones later in their lives.

“Now, it’s been so long, I see some of them are getting married and having a family. I love being able to see that,” said Harbison, quickly following with a laugh, “But it does make me feel old!”

Harbison’s upbeat attitude and willingness to jump in may be surprising to some. However, his desire to be a light for the community was even more solidified after an unfortunate diagnosis.

“I found out I had Huntington’s disease about two years ago. It’s very rare, not a lot of funding for finding a cure, and you can’t slow down the progression…I probably still have three or four good years left,” he said, explaining that he is the third generation in his family to inherit the disorder, and the progression typically moves quicker after each successive generation.

Harbison mentioned that while many may hear a diagnosis like that and give up, it has made him all the more motivated to make the best of what time he has left.

“It kind of just put everything into perspective,” he said. “Like every minute that I have, it feels more important. I feel like God has given me a lot of purpose and a lot of fulfillment with everything I’ve been able to do since.”

Harbison announced in September 2023 that he would be stepping down from the role of executive director of the United Way of Cullman County, saying that while after Nov. 9, 2023, he won’t be on the payroll, he still intends to serve his community through United Way’s partner agencies.

“It’s been a blessing. Although I’m going to have to step back from this official role, I’m going to do things as long as I can,” he said, encouraging others in the community to do the same. “I think all of us are called to do something. Every one of us has a specific gift or skillset, but whatever your skillset is, you can find something to give back with that. It doesn’t matter how old or young you are. If you can move, you can give back!”

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