Fostering a Servant Spirit for Lee County

Growing up in an atmosphere with family helping others, Tipi Colley Miller learned the importance of giving back and serving others in need. After spending years working in community focused organizations, she took over as director of the United Way of Lee County last June. Tipi has continued her commitment ingrained in her at an early age to serve others and provide help when people need it the most.

When Tipi was in the sixth grade in Opelika, her parents, Judy and Dr. Jere Colley, who had been active in church and going on mission trips, moved the family to Bangladesh on a mission trip for two years. Her father served as a veterinarian, while her mother home-schooled Tipi and her sister. Her brother was in college at the time.

“We lived with the people,” Tipi remembers. “We were an hour away from any other Americans. We learned the language fast and learned to cook the way they cook. It was a great experience, and it opened my eyes to the bubble that we live in, and that the world is so much bigger.”

When the family returned from Bangladesh, Tipi’s parents became foster parents through DHR. “My sister and I helped with the foster kids,” she says. “Every Friday night was my night to be in charge of getting up with the baby, warming the milk and those kinds of things. Saturday night was my sister’s time.

“It was ingrained in me at an early age that our job on Earth has a lot of roles,” she adds, “and one of those is to serve other people, and sometimes it is the least of these.”

Her mother was involved in the food bank, and the family was always doing things for others. “My brother, sister and I grew up in that atmosphere,” Tipi says. “My parents were doing things for other people, such as buying Christmas gifts for families and things like that. That gave us a perspective for helping people. When you have been blessed, you need to give back.”

After Tipi graduated from Lee Scott Academy, she attended Auburn University, graduating with a degree in supply chain management. No one knew what that involved before Covid.

When looking for work, Tipi felt her heart was in non-profit and that God was leading her to the non-profit world. Her first job was working with United Way in Birmingham, and she met her husband, Wes, while working there.

After they married, the couple knew they wanted to raise their children in a small town. They moved to Opelika, and Wes accepted a position at Auburn University as a manager in horticulture facilities. Tipi went to work for the Opelika Chamber of Commerce where she had interned during college. She enjoyed working with business owners and the community and worked there for four years as the membership director.

While working there, Tipi became friends with Shirley Flora, who was director of Keep Opelika Beautiful. When Shirley decided to retire in 2009, she told Tipi she wanted her to take the position. It was the perfect job for Tipi as she was raising young children.

Tipi enjoyed the work for 13 years, including holding Garden in the Park. She established programs to be family friendly and educational for children.

While serving as the director, she was on the United Way of Lee County board and a volunteer. Since working at United Way in Birmingham, Tipi knew the impact the organization has on the community. When the director, Becky Bennett, retired after 25 years, Tipi prayed about accepting the position and talked to her family about it. “I felt this was an opportunity for me to give back to the community that I love,” she says. “There were talents that God gave me that I could use for this position.”

Tipi began working as the director on June 1, 2022. “It is a great, caring staff that takes time for every client and agency,” she says. “It is the fundraiser side for 20 agencies, including Boys and Girls Clubs, Red Cross, Child Advocacy Center and others in the community.

“Every one of our agencies has to go through an interview process. We have lots of volunteers looking at their information. It is a strict process when we give money away.

“Some people don’t realize the impact we have,” adds Tipi. “We might be paying a person’s electric bill, but for that person it is having an air conditioner running in the middle of July and makes a huge difference in their life.

“We recently paid for a child who was uninsured to have his arm set after he broke it,” she says. “Little things like that are huge for a family. It is an honor when we get to help families.”

Tipi and the campaign manager for fundraising begin in August talking to industry, businesses and on the Auburn University campus. “It is all donations, and a lot of our donations, especially on campus, are through payroll deductions,” she says. “We work with a lot of human resource managers, and the payment comes out of their check. We are grateful for that opportunity.”

The fundraising provides funds to their agencies and programs through United Way, such as helping a child with a broken arm or helping with utility bills. They administer the funds given through Opelika Share on power service bills.

“Our clients are wonderful people who have worked very hard throughout their life,” Tipi states, “but a lot of them are senior adults or disabled and not able through no fault of their own. Sometimes life is hard.

“Sometimes we help people who just need help this month. We are not going to help them every month. That is not how we operate. Maybe they just had a car wreck, and they are behind on their bills, or a loved one is sick, and we can help with just some of that. Some people think we help the same person all the time, but we don’t. We want to be sure they can help themselves, but sometimes people just need a bridge to get to where they can help themselves again. If we can help them one or two times, we would be honored.”

Tipi and her team spend a lot of time with the 20 agencies. They see what each agency needs, their budget and how they are going to spend the funds. Every quarter the agencies present a report on how many people they served, how they served them and outcomes. They are interested in success stories.

Domestic Violence is one of their agencies. “They have incredible success stories,” Tipi says. “It is heartwarming to know how much we can help the community, and it is heartwarming because it is community money. We are using donations, and people trust us with it. We are great stewards of the funds.”

United Way is a strong organization. They are operated by 22 board members. The new incoming chairman is Steve Pelham, who works at Auburn University. Everyone on the board knows the community and their needs. They are involved in the community on the day-to-day level. All volunteers are local.

“The needs in our community may be different than another community needs,” the director says. “Our needs change over time. Covid brought in new needs. We want to be involved and change with what our community needs. I have an open-door policy. We are always open to new ideas.”

Tipi feels her upbringing in an atmosphere of giving back has benefited her work and family. Her son Colt is now 15 and a freshman at Opelika High School, Annie, who is 13, is a student at Opelika Middle School and Branch, 9 years old, attends Northside Intermediate School.

“It is fun to look back,” Tipi says, “as now I am involved in United Way, and my sister is involved in the foster care program, and both of us volunteer in Miracle League and other organizations. My brother works in family court and helps with adoptions in foster care on the legal side.

“My kids see that day by day and know how important it is to give back. Hopefully, the example for them will be to always serve and give back to the community in whatever work they do.”

To learn more about United Way of Lee County and the agencies served, visit