How volunteers make Jefferson City an incredible community.
I’m going to be honest with you. Until recently, I was completely ignorant about the depth of our community. Jefferson City was a wonderful place in which to grow up and go to school, but I didn’t understand what makes our city — the capital city — special. The capacity of giving here is, without question, truly remarkable. Without really thinking about it, we structure our social events, sporting events, professional lives, and more around giving back to those in need. And as we’ve shown, there is need here. Thankfully, we’re a community of philanthropic warriors, each and every one displaying a passion for what they do.
Coming from a family of educators, I know the patience it takes to be a teacher — but it takes more than that. To be a good teacher for decades, it takes a passion (a word I’ll use a lot here) for what you’re doing. This is true of Elaine Foster. Elaine taught for over 30 years, most of that time as the music teacher at Callaway Hills. Talk to any of her former students today and they’ll tell you about her kindness and infectious smile. After retirement, she knew she needed to apply her passion elsewhere.
“I was out of working daily for about six years, and last year, before Thanksgiving, I thought I’d really like to go back to work,” Elaine says. “I saw an article about the Salvation Army in the newspaper that said they needed help preparing food to hand out. I thought I’d like to do that because I have such a respect and appreciation for the Salvation Army. That’s how I started. It was meeting a need of mine, but I felt like it was a worthy place to serve. It is important to me to serve and to share.”
While Elaine doesn’t deal directly with the Salvation Army’s clients, her job is crucial to day-to-day operations. She’s the support, the energizer. “I work in the back room putting whatever is available into boxes,” she says. “So, I see my role as a support to the lady who runs the pantry. I’d like to make her job easier on her.”
“Elaine’s energy and enthusiasm is contagious,” says Shelly Herst, social services and Pathway of Hope case manager at the Salvation Army. “She is our behind-the-scenes faithful helper. She has and continues to have a positive impact in our organization, and we’re fortunate to have her as a part of our family…She isn’t one who would expect any type of recognition for her volunteerism, but we feel she exemplifies the true definition of volunteerism.”
Mike Downey is everywhere. Recently, I saw him at three different philanthropic events in one week, always with a smile or laugh prominent. Not one to give up a chance to help, Mike is involved with several local philanthropies, including United Way of Central Missouri, Jefferson City Day Care Center (now Little Explorers Discovery Center), the Capital City Jazz Fest, and the ABLE Learning Center. As chairman of the United Way’s marketing committee, Mike is involved in planning (and, of course, marketing) events such as Mid-Missouri’s Got Talent. He says he’s been working with the United Way for 20 years or so — he doesn’t know the exact number.
“In church, it was always time, talent, and treasure,” Mike says. “I feel that if you have the ability to give, you need to give. That’s what first drove me. There’s also the idea that it’s so rewarding to do it. You get rewards through people appreciating what you do, but you also get to see the results of your work.
“That’s a little selfish, but that’s okay,” he laughs. “The third reason is that you have to show the way to younger people. This is not only something you should do, but it’s something you can really enjoy doing. At Mid-Missouri’s Got Talent, there were dozens of volunteers and many of them were very young. That was such a ‘Yes!’ moment. If you get them to volunteer young, then they are likely going to continue.”
Along with his charitable work, Mike also manages KJLU and teaches the occasional speech or theater course at Lincoln University. Mike is a communicator, he has a business mind, and he’s enthusiastic in everything he does. He uses these talents in his professional life, of course, but he shares them for what he considers a greater purpose as well. Being able to communicate the need — communicating so people will really listen — is vital to any nonprofit or charitable organization. With people like Mike involved, you can be sure everyone will know when and where the next United Way event is, and they’re sure to have a blast.
There seems to be a trend coming out of Jefferson City of people creating national and international charitable organizations. HALO is one of them. Someone who saw the potential and importance of this venture from nearly the very beginning was another former JCPS teacher, Betty Sundermeyer.
“I’ve kind of grown up with HALO here in Jefferson City,” Betty says. “In 2007, my husband and I went on a mission trip to Mozambique and worked with orphans. When I came back, I ran into Joyce Neuenswander [mother of HALO Founder Rebecca Welsh]. I knew immediately I wanted to be part of HALO. I volunteered to help with the art auction first, went to a retreat in Kansas City, met Rebecca, saw her passion and commitment, and fell in love with the mission. My main reason for involvement is my connection with that mission and the fact that, through them, I know I’m part of making a difference in the world one child at a time.”
Betty is a jack-of-all-trades within HALO. Today, most of her work involves supporting HALO in the background by overseeing income, working with donor management, and serving as a resource person for HALO Jefferson City as needed. “My work is important to HALO because anything I can do in this capacity helps to free up the rest of the staff to focus on our kids,” Betty says.
“It is such a privilege to work with an organization like this within a community that is so giving,” she adds. “We have volunteers who come out of the woodwork when we need them, and none of them are looking for recognition. It’s been such a journey and a privilege. I think we realize what an amazing and caring community we have, filled with caring individuals who try to assure that all youth have an opportunity to reach their potential. People give whatever they can give and they give from the heart.”
Betty’s passion for this cause is obvious not only in her dedication to and flexibility within the organization, but also in her eyes when she talks about the children she’s helping.
Volunteerism isn’t a one-way street. Six adults with developmental disabilities at the Day Solutions Inc. Day Habilitation Program know this well — Jackie, Chris A., Jocelyn, Caleb, Jean, Chris K., and Heather all give back to Jefferson City while receiving recognition of their own. Their commitment to nonprofits like Jefferson City Animal Shelter, Fresh Start Market, and Buddy Packs have been selected as 2017 candidates for the President’s Volunteer Service Award, a national award for outstanding volunteer service.
And they’re not only helping people in need; they’re gaining job skills for the future. “When Day Solutions opened, the goal was, in part, to integrate the clients into the community,” says Tiffany Burns, support services administrator. “One of the ways we did that was by setting up volunteer jobs in fields where our clients could potentially work in the future. As word began to spread about what we were doing, many local businesses began contacting us because they wanted to be a part of our clients’ success.”
One client, Jackie, says her dream job is working with animals. “I play with them and clean their dishes,” she says. “I’ve grown up with animals, and they help me feel better.” Jackie also bakes cookies at the Fresh Start Market for the families waiting to pick up items. “When I was with my biological family, I used to get checks from SSI and disability, so I know how it feels to not have much. I enjoy helping other people. I see homeless people, and it breaks my heart,” she says.
Chris A., another client, performs maintenance work to keep Grace Episcopal Church beautiful and helps deliver Buddy Packs to West Elementary. “My father would be proud. It helps the community and it’s for a good cause,” he says. “I also help out with fundraisers, events, and deliveries [for Day Solutions]. I like meeting new people and how volunteering makes me feel.”
Jocelyn delights in her volunteer time reading to elementary schoolers at Cedar Hill. “It makes me feel good about myself because I’m helping other people that need help,” she says. “It’s sweet because the kids read the book to me and I help them sound out the words. I love helping people. It makes me have a better day.”
The collaboration between these volunteers and our community is paving the way for inclusion and showcasing the inherently giving nature of Jefferson City.
Sometimes volunteering is a team sport. Literally.
Gary Wilbers began working with Special Olympics of Missouri in 1994 with the State Outdoor Games. “That’s really what hooked me,” he says. “The athletes loved participating. They were so gracious and humble about what they did. I remember getting goosebumps from the excitement.”
For 23 years, Gary has involved his former and current (Ascend Business Strategies) businesses in Special Olympics. From the Polar Bear Plunge to Over the Ledge and more, he always has participating teams. They even dress up for the occasions — one year, they attended the Polar Bear Plunge as lollipops (a.k.a. “Suckers for SOMO”). “It became a passion, a company event,” he says. “I’ve also always involved my children. We always took them to the games. I felt that was an important part of volunteering.”
In 2008, Gary joined the SOMO board of directors. “They run like a business,” he says. “The thing that attracted me was that I could involve my family and my business. They created a culture within our business where my employees would constantly be planning for the next event.”
Gary saw the importance of Special Olympics at a fundraiser golf tournament 10 years ago. “Keith Lueckenhoff [a Special Olympics athlete] asked me to be his Unified Golf partner,” he says. “In March of 2014, [Keith’s] dad passed away. He told me, ‘Gary, I want to win a gold medal for my dad.’ We ended up playing that year at State. We didn’t start off very well. On the sixth hole, they called the game due to bad weather. [That afternoon] we won the gold medal. [Keith] stood up and said ‘Dad, this is for you.’ I’ll never forget that.”
Gary was also instrumental in the planning of the Training for Life campus for SOMO athletes. “We are going to have a campus that is nowhere else in the world, and it’s going to be right here in Jefferson City,” he says. “Athletes will come from throughout the state. Not only will they be able to train, but we’ll have leadership training and health screenings.”
His final words of wisdom: “We get more than we give. That’s any volunteer. If you give of yourself, you find out you’re pretty fortunate.”
What’s one thing Jefferson City loves as much as giving? Sports. Particularly, youth sports. We’re a community that loves to rally around our kids and teach them the importance of fundamentals. Doesn’t it seem natural to combine these two loves?
“About four years ago, my son and I started a baseball team through [Jefferson City] Parks & Rec,” says Jay Carroll. “I found out how good he really was. He eventually made it onto a competitive team. We were playing about six or seven days a week between practice and games [for both teams]. One day he told me, ‘Dad, it’s too much. I’m just not having fun.’”
That’s when Jay realized something needed to change. His son wanted to play with his friends, but Jay didn’t want his talent to go to waste. And with inflating costs and competition, it’s more difficult for all interested kids to play at the level they want. “I decided we need to do something different,” says Jay. “I’m going to make a movement in this community that it doesn’t matter what family you come from or how much money your family has or doesn’t have — I’m going to figure out a way that friends can stay and play together from tee ball all the way through high school as much as possible. I’m going to find a way to do that and scholarship kids into this organization.”
The Young Wanted, part of the local pro baseball team The Wanted (a nonprofit organization that’s part of the Frontier League), works to teach all young athletes how to play, improve, and be community leaders, all while staying with their friends. “We instill core values into these children to become better leaders in our community and help our community later on in the work force,” says Jay. “I’ve seen great things happen in this town, but I’ve also seen that it’s growing at a slower rate than a lot of towns. I think that maybe something like this would help.”
Along with teaching children the game’s fundamentals and core values, The Wanted gives back to the community through partnerships with businesses and other nonprofits. Currently, the teams work with the Special Learning Center and Special Olympics to fundraise and volunteer, and they hope to increase the number of organizations they help in the future. “Not only do we try to win championships, but we also win championships in life,” says Jay.
In The Young Wanted’s four years, they’ve grown from one team to 11 and have also added softball — they plan on adding basketball and soccer teams later.
Click here to read about some furrier volunteers.