These Fox Citians take giving back to the next level
The holiday season is one of giving, and thankfully the Fox Cities are filled with opportunities to put all that spirit to good use. Take the lead from these locals who give back in big ways.
Bob and Donna Stanek volunteer with The Salvation Army-Fox Cities year round, but their efforts kick into high gear come November. The Appleton couple is involved in several of the organization’s Christmas programs including Toys for Tots, Adopt-a-Family and the Red Kettle bell ringing campaign.
According to The Salvation Army-Fox Cities, in 2018 more than 21,000 toys, stocking stuffers, books and games were given to local children through Toys for Tots. The Adpot-a-Family program provided presents for 1,177 children last year and 1,538 individuals logged more than 7,000 hours ringing bells. Personally, Bob and Donna estimate they each put in upwards of 70 volunteer hours each holiday season.
“Every Christmas they need all the volunteers they can get,” Donna says.
Both Bob and Donna began volunteering in retirement. After retiring in 2004, Bob volunteered at Ascension St. Elizabeth Hospital. Donna retired from a career in accounting in 2007 and connected with The Salvation Army-Fox Cities through Volunteer Fox Cities, a nonprofit organization that matches volunteers to community needs.
Volunteering not only helps others, Bob says, but it provides vital social contact and other benefits to the volunteer, especially retirees. “If you retire and just sit in your apartment watching TV you won’t live very long,” he says.
Bob eventually joined Donna, volunteering with The Salvation Army ringing bells, stocking food pantry shelves and sorting toys for the Adopt-a-Family and Toys for Tots distributions. Donna spends most of her November volunteer hours interviewing potential clients for the Christmas toy distribution to ensure they qualify for the service.
The Staneks both admire the work done by The Salvation Army and find their personal values to align with the organization’s goals.
“For myself, when I was working at United Fund you could donate a percentage off your check and I picked my money to go to The Salvation Army,” Bob says. “Through the years I did research and their percentage for admin fees was low, so with the money they got they did the most.”
As volunteers, Bob and Donna support the many facets of the The Salvation Army, in particular their Christmas giving efforts. Part of Donna’s job is to assist parents in the selection of donated toys which takes place over several days in December. Donna has assisted dozens of families, but one woman stands out in her mind. After selecting toys for her children, the woman asked Donna where she could find a Christmas tree.
“I told her we had an old tabletop tree that we didn’t use anymore. I said she could have it and she had tears in her eyes,” Donna remembers. “We are very fortunate compared to a lot of people.”
Since 2015, Ledgeview Partners, a business and technology consulting company in Appleton, has participated in the Thanksgiving food basket program in coordination with the Outagamie County Department of Human Services Youth and Family Services Division.
The goal of the program is to ensure that families in need have a meaningful holiday with a complete Thanksgiving meal. Volunteers can donate and deliver a food basket individually or coordinate a food basket drive for several families which is what Ledgeview Partners does.
Inside Sales Account Manager Deborah Bellows has been spearheading the company’s initiative. She says each year the county assigns them families, providing a list of each member’s name and age.
“Having that information makes it more personal,” Bellows says. “It’s not just somebody. It’s not just cans of food. We are giving to the Jones family and they have this many children. We’ve gotten to speak with family members and hear their stories. They are so grateful.”
Each year of the partnership, Ledgeview Partners leadership supplies the turkeys for the food baskets, but the employees donate all the ingredients for the rest of the dishes including staples like gravy, dressing, mashed potatoes and pie. They work from a list of preferred items, but employees can also provide the ingredients for dishes their own families love to make at Thanksgiving.
“It provides families with an opportunity to be together on a holiday that so many people take for granted,” Bellows says. “The families we’ve had the opportunity to talk to are so appreciative and that is what they speak to – it allows them to have a meal as a family and it really feels so good to help directly in that way.”
During the first year, Ledgeview Partners sponsored baskets for four families, serving a total of 18 people. The company has increased their contributions each year since. As of 2018, the 70 employees of Ledgeview Partners have helped 22 families, a total of 90 people, have a full Thanksgiving meal.
“I think it’s so successful because of the human aspect. It’s easy to donate $500 to an organization, but by working with Outagamie County, we know this single mother with her children can bond making this meal together,” says Director of Marketing Chad Collett. “Financial burdens are stressful, but at least during this holiday season we are helping families create memories for a lifetime.”
Nourishing the Soul
Over 30 years ago, Marine veteran Ed Rathsack and his brother Terry, a chef, were in downtown Appleton on Christmas Day and were surprised to see so many individuals experiencing homelessness and senior citizens without family.
“We talked about what we could do for them. My brother said, ‘Well, we can cook. Let’s put one hell of a meal out,’” Rathsack says.
The brothers began serving a free Christmas meal to Fox Cities residents in need. The program has grown tremendously since then and is now known as We Care Meals which serves and delivers free meals to anyone who requests one on Christmas as well as Easter.
“It’s open to anybody. We don’t care who you are or how much money you make. We aren’t pushing religion, politics, nothing expect companionship and a meal,” Rathsack says. “We are nourishing the body and feeding the soul.”
Companionship is a major component of each meal. The Christmas meal is served from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Riverview Gardens in Appleton where tables are set up family style to encourage conversation. Meals can also be delivered directly to a resident’s home. When a home delivery meal is requested, the caller is asked if they would like companionship during the meal. If so, the volunteer making the delivery will stay and they will share the meal together.
“Our goal isn’t to just feed and run. If I wanted to stuff bellies I could send them to McDonald’s,” Rathsack says. “Our goal is to try and get that gap of loneliness met.”
During last year’s Christmas event, 2,661 in house and home delivery meals were served. In addition, We Care Meals provided four bulk drop-off meals to organizations including Harbor House Domestic Abuse Shelter and the Fox Valley Warming Shelter.
Rathsack says the Fox Cities community is behind this effort. Community members make monetary donations and area businesses donate food items and equipment or offer to sell items at cost. When events have come close to being canceled due to lack of funds, the community has stepped up to make it happen. Each event costs about $4,000 and requires the support of more than 200 volunteers.
“Volunteers may be bussing tables, hauling garbage or doing dishes. Anything that goes on in a restaurant, but these volunteers step up and do it,” Rathsack says. “Even though the event ends at 2 p.m. we are still there until 5 in the afternoon doing dishes. It’s crazy, but the volunteers are the ones who make this happen.”
Feeling inspired to lend a hand? Volunteer Fox Cities’ 2019 Holiday Volunteering Guide is now available! From wrapping gifts for families in need to caroling at senior living facilities, visit volunteerfoxcities.org to browse dozens of seasonal give-back opportunities.