The Gift of Time

Give the intangible this holiday season by volunteering — no wrapping paper required

Mary Harp-Jirschele knows the value of a home cooked meal, something most of us take for granted. But for some residents of the Fox Cities, a hot plate of food isn’t a given, it’s a luxury.

Harp-Jirschele is one of the volunteers providing food for residents at the Emergency Shelter of the Fox Valley in Appleton, a facility that provides temporary shelter to homeless individuals and families. Once a month, Harp-Jirschele and a special group of 14 friends meet to prepare, serve and clean up a meal.

“Food touches people and brings them together,” she says. “We feel good that we’re doing something for someone else.”

The group is so well-known and liked that the Emergency Shelter residents have given them, and their supporting kitchen team, a name.

“I called once with a question and someone said, ‘Oh, you’re the lovely ladies who cook on Fridays. Everyone knows your group,’” says Harp-Jirschele, who started the team nearly five years ago. “We formally became ‘The Lovely Ladies Cooking Team and Their Infamous Pit Crew’ because we couldn’t do it without our guys doing the dishes.”

The Lovely Ladies take their service to the next level by decorating the dining area and using themes for meal preparations. For their holiday meal, they partner with Festival Foods to serve steak and shrimp on china from their own cupboards and serve residents family-style instead of using a food line to create an experience that feels like home.

Harp-Jirschele, who is currently the executive director for the J.J. Keller Foundation in Neenah, believes the best type of volunteering is the donation of time.

“The truth is that we’re a busy group of women who have spent more time making decisions in board rooms than working in a setting like the Emergency Shelter kitchen,” she says. “It was time we rolled up our sleeves in a different fashion to make a difference.”

By the Numbers

According to a national Volunteering in America (VIA) survey, 62.8 million adults volunteered almost 8.1 billion hours in local and national organizations in 2010.

The same study, which was conducted between 2007-2010, ranked Appleton third among the seven metropolitan statistical areas in Wisconsin in terms of volunteerism.

“The Fox Cities has always had a strong connection and passion for the many causes in our area,” says Susan Vanden Heuvel, director of events and sponsorships for the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce. “People are ready and willing to help their fellow neighbor in times of need.”

The VIA study found 68,900 people in the Appleton area volunteer their time annually for a cause such as working as a tutor in a local school, serving as a canvasser for a political candidate or helping out at a local church picnic.

Vanden Heuvel sums it up with a quote by psychologist Sherry Anderson that says, “Volunteers don’t get paid, not because they’re worthless, but because they’re priceless.”

Benefits of Volunteerism

When you ask a volunteer about the benefits of donating their time, they will tell you about the intangible feelings of accomplishment, pride and satisfaction they receive by incorporating service into their lives and making a difference in the lives of others.

After the first time, many express interest in additional service opportunities and soon become active members in organizations that serve the community through volunteerism.

Sara Schnell is the president of the Appleton Fox Cities Kiwanis Club, a service organization of volunteers that are dedicated to changing the world one child and one community at a time. She has lived in many cities across the United States and feels very strongly that individuals in the Fox Cities step up and give back to those in need

“I feel blessed with the time, talent and health that allows me to serve others,” says Schnell whose position as president has helped her grow personally and given her a deep appreciation to the dedication of men and women in the community.

Chartered in 1972, the Appleton Fox Cities Kiwanis Club has raised and contributed more then $600,000 in the Fox Cities. Non-profit organizations such as Goodwill, The Thompson Center, Harbor House and Salvation Army benefit from Kiwanis volunteers each year.

Ashley Timm, volunteer coordinator for The Salvation Army-Fox Cities, relies heavily on the help of Kiwanis Club volunteers especially during the holiday season. Every year, thousands of volunteers assist with seasonal programs such as bell ringing and the Coats for Kids drive.

“Last year, Kiwanis volunteers covered thirty bell ringing shifts and raised more than $3,000,” Timm says. “ That’s a significant amount of money that goes back to the community.”

Today, the local Kiwanis group has over 70 members from 23 to 78 years of age who log over 2,000 volunteer hours a year. Without these dedicated volunteers community organizations, such as The Salvation Army-Fox Cities, would suffer.

“They provide a great service to the community,” Timm says. “We know we can count on the Kiwanis Club. They take a lot of stress off our staff who coordinate the programs.”

For individuals looking to volunteer, Schnell suggests joining an organization that supports a cause that is important to them or looking around their neighborhood to see if someone needs help.

“If you simply show up with a smile, you will make someone’s day,” says Schnell.

Giving an Unconventional Gift

During the holiday season, schedules fill up with concerts, parades and family events leaving Fox Cities residents searching for flexible, yet far-reaching volunteer opportunities.

“If a volunteer is looking for a short-term commitment, we match them with a family or person in need,” says Penny Jane Strauss, volunteer coordinator for Outagamie County Health and Human Services. “During the holiday season, we need volunteers to help the elderly and disabled with their fall raking and window washing as well as donors to adopt families for Thanksgiving dinner or Christmas.”

Strauss utilizes The Volunteer Center of East Central Wisconsin, Inc. as a way to connect volunteers with Outagamie County residents in need. Each holiday season, The Volunteer Center publishes a list of needs in the community, most of which ask volunteers to give two to four hours of their time.

Here’s our list of ways Fox Cities residents can pitch in to help their neighbors this holiday season:

If you have 30 minutes:

  • Be a volunteer companion by visiting an elderly person either at their home or in an assisted living facility in Outagamie County.
  • Visit a local nursing home and hand out gifts provided by The Salvation Army.
  • Prepare and deliver Christmas Eve meals or holiday treats to 25 men at COTS, Inc.

If you have 60 minutes:

  • Join the Fox Cities Habitat for Humanity and wrap gifts at the Fox River Mall.
  • Sing Christmas carols during mealtime at Loaves and Fishes of the Fox Valley.

If you have 90 minutes:

  • Help out during the holiday school break at The Building for Kids.
  • Make cards or tray favors for patients at a local hospital like ThedaCare.

If you have two hours:

  • Ring bells for The Salvation Army.
  • Decorate a room for the holidays at Brewster Village.

If you have three hours:

  • Adopt-a-Family through Outagamie County Health and Human Services and shop, wrap and deliver gifts.
  • Help persons choose gifts for their families at a Salvation Army distribution center.


Taking the Wheel

Without volunteers, many organizations in the Fox Cities would be unable to offer the services many residents depend on, such as safe transportation to appointments and visitations.

Two years ago, Lois and Gene Ver Voort of Little Chute contacted Penny Jane Strauss, volunteer coordinator for Outagamie County Health and Human Services, after talking with friends about how they could donate their time to the community.

As new retirees, the Ver Voorts were seeking a volunteer opportunity that allowed them to spend time with their grandchildren and enjoy their new stage of life.

After an interview and background check, they were given a badge to identify themselves as volunteer drivers for Outagamie County. Over the last year, the Ver Voorts have driven over a thousand miles to transport Fox Cities residents to doctor appointments, hospital visits and family functions when they are unable to drive themselves.

“There is a feeling of satisfaction knowing that you are helping people,” says Lois, who has driven adults and children as far south as Milwaukee. “Everyone needs transportation and these individuals trust me to take them where they need to go.”

Finding a volunteer opportunity that is flexible and suits your personality is key in matching community needs with the right person. To get started, interested volunteers need only to take the wheel.

“If individuals don’t know how to get involved they can call us,” says Julia Drobeck, volunteer coordinator for The Volunteer Center of East Central Wisconsin, Inc. “We will sit down with them and get them connected with the right need.”

— By Dana Baumgart

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