Potomac Airgas tackles issue of child abuse


Employees of Potomac Airgas in Linthicum launched a community-service program, AirgasCares, last night to help combat child abuse in the Baltimore area.

If successful, the program could spawn similar ones at 350 other Airgas Management Inc. subsidiaries throughout the country.

"There's something you always want to do as an individual, but sometimes you don't make a big dent. But as a company, we felt we could," said Ron Arnold, president of Potomac Airgas.

To find out where their efforts might best be focused, about 50 Potomac Airgas employees listened last night as a panel of representatives from five Baltimore social service organizations told of their agencies' needs.

"Our goal is to work this panel of experts right out of a job," said Paulette Cooke, a buyer for Potomac Airgas.

Ms. Cooke wants to volunteer at an agency that fights child abuse because, she said, she was mentally, physically and sexually abused at age 8 by her mother's boyfriend. The abuse caused her to run away from home at age 12 to live with her father, a farmer in North Carolina, for a year. She returned to Baltimore after her mother's boyfriend left the home, said Ms. Cooke, 40.

"For me, child abuse is a personal issue because I was a victim of it growing up," she said. So getting involved in combating child abuse "made perfect sense" to Ms. Cooke, a mother of two grown daughters who lives in Glen Burnie.

Today, she and other Potomac Airgas employees will meet to discuss what they heard last night. They will try to decide which and how many agencies they can help, and in what ways.

"It's evolving as we go," said Ms. Cooke. "It's new to all of us."

To guide them through the process, Potomac Airgas employees turned to Need in Deed, a small nonprofit social service agency in Philadelphia that focuses on introducing the idea of community service to students in kindergarten through grade 12, said Whim Lynch, executive director of the group.

Airgas Management Inc. is a corporate sponsor of Need in Deed.

It was Peter McCausland, president and chief executive officer of Airgas Management in Radnor, Pa., who approached Ms. Lynch last summer about trying the concept in an adult setting.

"The reason that Peter felt the Need in Deed model would fit Airgas is that many times in a decentralized company with employees from all types of backgrounds, you have a difficult time with selecting a philanthropy that has meaning to all the employees of the company," said William Sanford, vice president of sales and marketing for Airgas Management.

So in September, eight Potomac Airgas employees from different backgrounds participated in a daylong workshop conducted by Need in Deed in Linthicum.

"It was a series of reflections to try and uncover the heartfelt concerns of employees about their neighborhoods," said Barbara Dundon, a coordinator at Need in Deed.

During an exercise called "Sad World, Happy World," such issues as AIDS, homelessness, child abuse and domestic violence were discussed.

In October, employees throughout Potomac Airgas were polled and asked to rank their concerns in order of importance to them.

Child abuse topped all the lists.

Eventually, Mr. Sanford said, Potomac hopes employees will learn enough from the Need in Deed model to be able to pass on what they learned to other employees, as they form their own community-service programs.

Mr. Sanford said the appeal of using Need in Deed as a model is that "it's a very grass roots type of philanthropy as opposed to a corporate sponsorship."

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