Use the term “influencer” in 2022 and it might conjure up an array of reactions. The title seems to be wrapped up in social media as of late, but the fact is all organizations and people who evoke change fit the bill.
Our area movers and shakers are just that: powerful changemakers. They’re standouts in their fields and receive well-deserved accolades for their work in the community.
Sometimes the work is quiet, less flashy or sensationalized, but the impact they make at the ground level is powerful and transforms the lives of people of all ages in our community.
No one is more worthy of the distinction than the organizations that see concerns in the Fox Cities and educate, empower and give back to our local families for the betterment of all.
Below are just a few of those organizations:
Community Clothes Closet
Dignity isn’t a word often associated with the kind of work Community Clothes Closet (CCC) in Menasha does, yet it’s naturally and intentionally a part of how they achieve their mission of providing free clothing to people in need.
“We want to instill dignity. We just don’t know what people are going through,” Lisa Jones, Executive Director, says. “To be able to offer a smile, to offer encouragement, to be a positive influence to them or say something positive to brighten their day, that’s what our volunteers do every day.
“I think a lot of people, when they think of basic needs, they think shelter and food. And quite often clothing gets forgotten about. You have to have clothing to function in life… it really does affect your day-to-day life: how you feel about yourself, how you’re performing at your job or at school.”
CCC currently works with 60+ human services agencies that refer individuals and families to become clients. Pillars, Harbor House and the St. Joseph’s Food Program, along with local schools, churches and employers, make up such partnerships.
“Once we have that referral on record the client is able to come in and register, and they’re able to shop with us twice a month for a year,” Jones explains.
All articles of clothing for men, women and children—including shoes, socks, new underwear and outerwear—are a part of the inventory at CCC. Baby Kits are also available for new parents, providing diapers, new clothing, bottles and pacifiers.
Within the space is the New Start Boutique, specifically for anyone who is in the process of looking and interviewing for jobs.
“We work one on one with them to find an appropriate interview outfit, providing interview etiquette tips,” Jones says. “Then when they get the job, they’re able to come back and shop for another 3-5 outfits based on if they’re part-time or full-time. So they have a whole week’s worth of clothing.”
All clients of CCC are eligible and encouraged to participate in annual programs.
The Traveling Closet, a pilot program that began this past fall, brings CCC to the Oshkosh Area School District.
“We fill a truck with clothing, hygiene items, winter items, whatever the need is for that month,” Jones says. “We’ve partnered with the Boys and Girls Club of Oshkosh to set up there as a central location and we serve their students once a month… Our intention is to grow the program to maybe other communities down the line.”
Cool For School in August provides all new socks, underwear, a pair of gym shoes and a new school outfit to kids to celebrate back to school.
“Kids love it, it’s a lot of fun. I think that’s one of the best things about our kids programs is that we encourage children to attend with their families because we think it’s very important for them to be a part of that decision making, picking out their own clothing,” Jones says.
PajamaRama generally serves close to 300 kids in December by giving new pajamas, a stuffed animal, a blanket, a book and a pillow.
“We think including some kind of education piece with the programs we do is super important. With our Cool for School and PajamaRama we’ll have the police department come in and talk about safety, maybe Tri-County Dental is there to talk about healthy teeth brushing and a good nighttime routine,” Jones explains.
Community support is vital to CCC’s mission. They accept in-kind donations at their location, and many Gunderson Cleaners locations, totalling almost 1 million items per year. Jones asks that all donations be laundered and brought in bags or boxes (sans hangers), and urges to consider only items in good condition: not out of style, no stains, holes, rips or tears.
Current high priority needs include gym shoes and men’s and boy’s casual clothing like T-shirts, sweatshirts and athletic pants.
“We accept all seasons all year long!” Jones says.
“We’re really hoping through our mission that we are able to help families stretch the limited income they do have for other basic needs like shelter and food. We’re all passionate about this and I think it comes through. We care about every single client we serve.”
United Way Fox Cities
With the core values accountability, community, caring, integrity and commitment, the United Way Fox Cities “improves lives by bringing diverse people together to build a stronger, more caring community for everyone.”
It’s a broad and all-encompassing message, and that’s out of necessity.
“It can be so complicated to explain our work,” Josh Kilgas, Vice President of Resource Development, says. “We fight for the health, education and financial stability of every person in every community. We do that by researching to understand our community’s most pressing needs. And then we gather our community stakeholders together so that we can be united in addressing those needs.
“There’s a complexity, a depth of work in the community. I think a lot of people think we’re only a pass through for money but it is much more complicated than that. It is the research, it’s the gathering of people.”
United Way Fox Cities works with over 40 partner agencies comprising nonprofits, businesses, community leaders and government entities to identify needs and provide programs, initiatives and grants funded through the community.
The three anchors of United Way Fox Cities’ mission—health, education and financial stability—embrace needs found in the community through such agencies and The Fox Cities Leading Indicators for Excellence (LIFE) Study conducted to identify socio-economic conditions in the area.
“What makes it so powerful is that we are making sure to address issues with partner agencies that might not have that same kind of public knowledge—whether that be because they’re a small local agency or because the work they do is a little less talked about in our community.”
Examples of health-related needs include access to mental and physical health care, while education focuses range from providing books during well visits to offering after school tutoring. Financial stability may be transportation to and from work or job training.
“We’re doing a wide variety of interconnected work,” Kilgas says. “It’s gathering many who have the expertise within certain areas then coming together under our United Way umbrella and uniting these things that often are working independently within our community and bringing it together to align those solutions.”
The Fox Cities LIFE Study discovered a high percentage of depression and anxiety in area student populations, bringing the need for accessible mental health treatment for all ages to light.
United Way’s PATH (Providing Access to Healing) for Students was created in response to the findings, bringing mental health professionals into area school districts to break barriers like stigma, inability to pay copays and transportation challenges.
“We asked which partner in mental health would be able to take that on,” Kilgas explains. “It became clear that it needed to be multiple agencies… I can’t stress enough that when I say ‘we’ I don’t mean staff at United Way… it is the stakeholders who come to the table from businesses and other nonprofits. ‘We’ is our community under United Way.”
In identifying transportation as a challenge for employment, United Way Fox Cities partnered with Valley Transit to create VT Connector.
“When Valley Transit wasn’t running for people to be working second and third shift jobs, we partnered with them to be able to supplement rides to bring people to and from work until they’re able to provide their own transportation,” Kilgas explains.
United Way’s Fox Cities Diaper Bank provides nearly 1,000 diapers to local families per month.
“We know that 1 in 3 families struggle to provide diapers for their babies,” Kilgas says. “That can cause people to have to make decisions between medication and food and an inadequate amount of diapers.
“We have diapers that come in in all sorts of sizes. To be equitable and for storage, we have people who ‘repack.’ They get instruction on how to pack them all up for distribution through the partner agencies. We put a book in each one of those.”
Kilgas says that’s just another example of how their initiatives and programs encompass how community needs, and partnerships, are interconnecting.
“I think that local piece is what makes United Way so powerful,” Kilgas says. “We are a part of a network that is the largest privately funded nonprofit in the world. But at the same time, we are all local… we are doing what is best for our community.”
Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin
One in 8 people living in our community worry about where their next meal is coming from, and there are nearly half a million Wisconsinites who face hunger.
That’s where Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin comes in. The leading local hunger-relief organization in the state celebrates 40 years this year, a rich history that has led to food being transported to nearly 400 pantries and meal programs across 35 eastern Wisconsin counties.
“First and foremost, we are an organization that is 100 percent committed to serving the communities where we live and work,” Patti Habeck, President and CEO of Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin, says. “We ensure that everyone has access to nutritional food and resources for assistance. We do this through collaboration and with the support of partner organizations, donors and volunteers.”
Why is it important for the Fox Valley to have you as a part of the community? Essentially, why do you do what you do?
We are an essential resource to the Fox Valley community because we support the local food safety net of pantries and meal programs. One in eight of the people living in our community don’t know where their next meal will come from. Providing food, funding, and capacity to the hunger relief system means they are able to serve those in need. By strengthening and supporting our network pantry partners, we are doing the same for our community and the people who live here.
Do you participate in/host annual events to advocate your mission? What are those?
Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin is extremely active in the community and consistently hosting or participating in events that help us get one step closer to our mission. In the Fox Valley specifically, we are involved with local events such as Combat Hunger with Woodward Radio Group, where food and funds are raised to directly benefit local veterans who need assistance. Each summer we also partner with Heid Music on Street Music Week, where musicians busk along college avenue to raise funds to support our programs and local pantries. We also “Stock the Shelves” every October with the Greater Fox Cities Chapter of Credit Unions and the USA TODAY NETWORK newspapers in Wisconsin. We are always open to new partnerships and creative ways to raise funds and awareness.
Anything else you think our readers should know about Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin and how it impacts our local community?
We are about more than just providing calories. We operate with a food policy that ensures that the people we serve have a choice, and healthy and culturally appropriate food will always be an option.
We also help connect our neighbors in need with resources like FoodShare. Our FoodShare outreach team visits local pantries and libraries to connect individuals with this valuable resource. We also have a form on our website for anyone who wants to be connected with one of our FoodShare outreach specialists to learn more and get assistance with applying. Especially during the pandemic, FoodShare has been a great help for those impacted. FoodShare helps stretch family budgets further and money is spent right in our community.
Advocating for programs like FoodShare is another part of what we do. Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin works to strengthen and protect the federal nutrition programs to ensure everyone has access to a healthy plate.
What do you attribute to the organization’s success in celebrating 40 years?
Nonprofits do not survive without the support of the community. We owe such a large part of our success helping others to the support we receive from those around us. Whether it’s a corporation holding a fundraiser or hosting food donation bins, or a local group taking time to volunteer at one of our campuses, we are successful because of their generosity and commitment to their community.
Another pillar of our success has been our ability to pivot and evolve. The pandemic confirmed this is a necessary strength that we truly possess as individuals and an organization. When the pandemic caused demand to surpass all previous expectations, we worked quickly and creatively to support our communities safely. Whatever the future brings, we are here for our neighbors in need.