LEOMINSTER -- United Way of North Central Massachusetts recognized donors and volunteers with an evening of laughter and festivities at its annual thank-you celebration, held Wednesday at the Four Points Sheraton.

Doug Petersen, president and CEO, Workers' Credit Union, and volunteer campaign chairman for United Way of North Central Massachusetts, thanked the nonprofit organization's volunteers and donors for contributing to this year's fundraising efforts.

The annual community campaign, which includes corporate gifts, employee giving and individual donations, funds 35 health and human-service programs focused on education, health and income. "Because this community represents what it means to live united, thousands of residents in 19 communities will receive vital services that will help create opportunities for a better life for all of us," Petersen said.

The evening, built around a literary theme, also celebrated the recent launch of United Way's latest initiative, the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, which provides a free book every month to children from birth to just under 5 years old who live in Fitchburg, Leominster, Gardner, Templeton and Winchendon.

Households in these communities are eligible to participate in the book program at no cost, regardless of family income. "We are thrilled to tell you, thanks to our sponsors of the program, we have nearly 1,000 children signed up for the program," said Kathy Heintz, director of community investment for United Way of North Central Massachusetts.

The evening also included recognition of local companies for conducting outstanding workplace employee-giving campaigns. United Way presented its Extraordinary Effort Chairman's Award for the Nashoba region to the Sterilite Corporation of Townsend; the Twin Cities award went to Georgia-Pacific/Dixie Cutlery of Leominster and, for the Greater Gardner region, Athol Savings Bank.

In addition to the workplace-giving awards, Unitil was recognized for donating office space to United Way for the past nine years.

According to Phil Grzewinski, president of United Way of North Central Massachusetts, the organization was able to provide an additional 75,000 units of service to the community over that period.

Karin Oliveira, from United Way Community Builders -- United Way's volunteer center -- noted that it is celebrating National Volunteer Week with several local initiatives.

In addition, United Way has organized "The Star Projects Competition," which features 12 community volunteer projects happening throughout the week.

United Way Youth Venture, a school-based program created by United Way of North Central Massachusetts and managed by Mount Wachusett Community College in Gardner, with more than 2,000 youth creating positive change through youth-led initiatives, awarded $1,000 scholarships to four students for outstanding participation in the program, including:

* Elisabeth Ryden of Pepperell, who attends North Middlesex Regional High School in Townsend was lauded for her community service commitment.

* Kathryn Wheeler of Groton, who attends Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School in Devens, was recognized for enthusiastically participating in United Way Youth Venture for many years..