Kewaunee County People of the Year made things happen in a crazy, scary, turbulent 2020
In a year like 2020, where does one begin to recognize those whose efforts stood out from the pack?
So many people went above and beyond the call to help Kewaunee County's residents and visitors navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, the resulting disruptions in our everyday lives, the downturn in the tourism and hospitality industry. Then we had the turbulent presidential election.
And through it all, others continued to go about about helping the community in unrelated ways. Along with the groups we'll recognize, this year we have:
Local craftspeople who stepped up to provide protection from the COVID-19 virus to health care and law enforcement workers.
Two women who brought attention and raised awareness of racial disparities, even in a community that's almost all-white.
Volunteers who performed extra work to make sure no one went hungry because of the pandemic.
And a sculptor who paid homage to Native Americans and the idea of conservation in a very public way.
These, then, in the weirdest, arguably scariest, most tumultuous year any of us have lived through, are the Star-News' 2020 People of the Year.
Health care workers, front-line workers, school staff, essential employees, all keeping us safe and sound
Really, these People of the Year are too numerous to single out individually. But as a group, they're more than deserving of being recognized for putting their own health on the line throughout the nine months the pandemic has been hitting Kewaunee County, and we cannot thank them enough for their dedication and perseverance during this time. They are:
The doctors, nurses, CNAs, support staff and others at all the clinics and residential care centers across the county who faced people with widely varying degrees of wellness who may or may not have been carrying the virus and still provided their services to take care of them.
Director Cindy Kinnard and the staff of the Kewaunee County Public Health Department, who've spent the past nine months working long hours trying to track the spread of the virus, issuing daily reports and advising people and businesses how best to protect themselves.
Law enforcement officers, fire fighters, first responders and rescue personnel whose already dangerous jobs had an added danger because of potential contact with the virus during the course of their daily contacts with the public, yet like the health care workers continued working to keep us safe and help us when we asked.
School district staff across the county, who reacted swiftly when faced with a situation they never faced before or most likely even imagined — the state-ordered shutdown of in-person teaching that came down in March and lasted through the remainder of the 2019-20 year.
School administrators, teachers and support staff leaped into action to come up with plans to provide students with in-home education as well as meals, then pivoted throughout the spring and summer, when it became clear the virus wasn't going away any time soon, to create plans for remote, in-person and blended learning this fall as warranted.
Also, we'll recognize the school volunteers whose help was invaluable in implementing those plans.
Businesses that completely changed their normal operations to continue to provide services during the pandemic, and the front-line workers who delivered goods, brought them out to our cars, kept on duty behind counters and cash registers and did whatever was necessary to keep the businesses alive in an economy like they've never experienced.
Municipal clerks and election volunteers, keeping the vote moving
The April election came just weeks after the state's safer-at-home order, resulting in moving targets for local clerks to plan how to keep voters and poll workers, many unpaid, safe from the virus, not to mention attempts to change the date of the election and how absentee ballots should be handled.
Then the November election saw record numbers of voters, in person and by mail, to go with the same issues surrounding the voting process and public health.
Despite these unprecedented challenges, few if any problems were reported even with the long lines, thanks to the planning and efforts of Kewaunee County Clerk Jaime Annoye, city clerks Jamie Jackson (then of Algoma) and Terri Decur (Kewaunee), village clerks MiLissa Stipe (Luxemburg) and Tammy Skarban (Casco) and town clerks across the county, as well as the volunteers who put in long hours and potentially put their health at risk to work at the very crowded polls.
Food pantry leaders, volunteers and especially those who donated
The outset of the COVID-19 pandemic this spring saw workers all over suddenly find themselves out of a job, temporarily or permanently, and children eating meals and snacks at home instead of school.
That strained on the ability of the county's four food pantries to keep residents from going hungry. Dan Balch, treasurer of Lakeshore Community Pantry (aka Holy Rosary Food Pantry) in Kewaunee, said the number of people receiving food from it rose between 33% and 50% after the pandemic struck, jumping from an average of 160 families a month in the first three months of the year to almost 270 in April and more than 200 the rest of the spring and fall. Ken Marquardt, director of the Kewaunee County Food Pantry in Algoma, said the pantry saw about 75 new families sign up for assistance, and he believed most or all of them did so because of economic hardships from the pandemic.
"There's a fair amount of new families coming in," Marquardt told the Star-News in late September. "You've got a number of families with a large number of children, the (working person) lost their job, they're definitely stretched. We had a man come in last week, he didn't know where to turn, he has six children, so we gave him an emergency food package (double the normal amount)."
"Right at the beginning was really important," Balch said, "because a lot of people had no food. They were unemployed, there were delays in getting their unemployment (benefits)."
Besides increased demand, the pantries also faced supply issues. Annual food drives conducted by the U.S. Postal Service and Boy Scouts were canceled because of the pandemic, and the Lakeshore pantry faced a cash flow problem because its thrift store was closed for five months, making it difficult to purchase the foods and hygiene products it distributes.
But the leaders of the pantries and the volunteers who put together food boxes for clients put in the extra work and pulled through those difficulties to keep those in need supplied.
And they acknowledge they couldn't have offered the extra supplies with the help of a community that went the extra mile to keep their shelves stocked.
Marquardt and Balch said their pantries saw substantial increases in cash donations from people and organizations in the community after the start of the pandemic. Some donated food as well; Balch noted the Carlton Hunting and Fishing Club, which annually donates part of the proceeds from its January gun raffle to the pantry, also donated about $1,000 worth of food a week for four weeks, all produced locally.
"The cash donations really stepped up," Marquardt said. "I know not all pantries are doing as well. I talked to one that was thinking it was going to shut down. We're fortunate that's not our situation at all."
"We had a tremendous step up in donations from the community," Balch said. "A lot of people who were normal givers doubled their efforts. Other people stepped up with a hundred (dollars) here, a hundred there. … (Oct. 7), we received six checks for over $1,000. That's something you'd not normally get, so it was a nice morning (chuckles).
"We have been in awe of the wonderful support by the people, organizations and businesses of Kewaunee County."
"We really have a generous, generous community," Lakeshore volunteer Margie Parmenter said.
Tom Rueckl, shielding the workers
When the pandemic hit an unprepared country, there was a critical shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care workers and law enforcement personnel, those whose work and service brought them into close contact with the public. Items like face masks and face shields were in high demand and short supply.
Rueckl, a 3-D printing hobbyist from Luxemburg who also is president of the Ribbon of Hope Foundation, a breast cancer support organization based in De Pere, set about to change that situation.
He printed out a batch of frames to be used for reusable, clear protective face shields for those who needed them immediately, free of charge. Rueckl also coordinated efforts of more than 100 other 3-D printers and other hobbyists in Northeast Wisconsin and across the state for the same effort.
With materials to make the shields also in short supply, Rueckl was able to find area businesses to help. NEW Plastics Corp. in Luxemburg donated an initial supply, later joined by D&S Machine, and Green Bay-area businesses Wild Blue Technologies, Griffin Industries, Laserform and Hobby Town and Appleton plastics company Coex all were able to donate supplies or services.
The result saw more than 3,000 shields made and distributed by the group of printers to hospitals and clinics (including Milwaukee Children's Hospital), dentists, nursing homes, first responders and more. Among local providers who received shields from Rueckl were the Kewaunee County Sheriff's Department (about 30 of them) and Luxemburg Fire & Rescue (12).
Kewaunee Artisan Center, masking up
The members of Kewaunee Artisan Center have worked on community service projects before the pandemic. Among other efforts, they’ve stitched together and donated more than 150 Quilts of Valor for area veterans and underarm pillows for breast cancer patients through the regional Ribbon of Hope Foundation.
So it's no surprise that at the outbreak of the pandemic, after center president Cheryl Daul was contacted by a friend of hers who is an RN supervisor at Bellin Hospital in Green Bay asking if the group would be able to make some masks for use at the hospital, the group jumped into action.
Thirty women members of the artisan center, joined by five women from St. Paul Lutheran Church in Algoma, sewed together 563 face masks in less than a week, based on a pattern supplied by the hospital, and donated them to Bellin. Daul and center member Sherry Paplham set up a non-contact drop-off for the masks at the center March 27, and Daul said she was amazed and surprised by the number of masks that came in. They were delivered that night to Daul's friend from Bellin.
Savannah Gardner and Megan Kuehl, raising awareness of race issues
Big cities with big non-white populations weren't the only places that saw people protesting racial inequality in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day.
Gardner, a Kewaunee High School graduate and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee student, saw a need for raising awareness of those issues even in a city as small and white as her hometown, with 96% of its 2,952 residents identifying as white and 0.1% as Black, according to the 2010 census.
So Gardner organized weekly Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Kewaunee, held every Friday afternoon from June through August at Harbor Park. She said it's important to raise awareness of these issues in small, mostly white communities as well as large, diverse urban centers.
"It felt like the right thing to do at the right time," Gardner said. "This is where conversation should be had about racial injustice, systemic racism. People here weren't as concerned because it's more white, not as diverse."
The protests were small, with anywhere from a half-dozen to 20 demonstrators on hand, including political candidates. Gardner said they were meant to educate people about Black life issues in today's world, not be accusatory or confrontational. She also set up a free book exchange table, featuring adult's and children's works by Black authors that related the African-American experience.
"I think (people approaching the protesters) all leave just better informed," Gardner said. "Most of the people coming up to us are of opposing beliefs, but we had good conversations, getting to learn each other's perspectives. … We're not here to bash anybody's beliefs, get involved in any arguments. We just want to get the conversation going."
Among the regular demonstrators was Kuehl, a Kewaunee High School graduate and a teacher herself — although not in the Kewaunee system. Inspired by the protests and the issues, she started an online petition asking the Kewaunee School District to, among other things, make changes to its curriculum that would include and present more non-white voices and viewpoints in its lessons and discourage racism within the schools.
Expecting to garner maybe 50 signatures, the petition instead got more than five times that many, 286 total, before Kuehl submitted it to the district in August. She said the district has contacted her to set up a discussion in the future about the issues raised.
Also inspired by the book table at the protests, in September Kuehl then enlisted the help of other educators to create an Amazon Wishlist of children's and young adult books that reflect the anti-racism and diversity message, to be shipped to the school district. She also encouraged those interested to buy locally or from Black-owned bookstores.
Within about two weeks, the effort saw more than $1,300 worth of books donated to the school district, and Kuehl included resources and lesson plans for each book to help the teachers use them.
"I feel it's important for schools to commit to antiracism," she said. "I consider schools a beacon in the community. They should lead the fight. I felt like maybe our schools can do a little bit better, open some eyes to some new perspectives."
Dr. Bill Faller, honoring a people and an ideal
Watching a ribbon of brown water washing down the Kewaunee river into Lake Michigan after a heavy rain inspired Kewaunee's new public art exhibit. That, and the ethos of the people of the Menominee Indian nation of making use of resources while not depleting or damaging them for future use.
The result, more than four years in the designing and creating, is a sculpture by local artist Faller that was erected in Harbor Park and dedicated in October.
The sculpture depicts two young Menominee men with a sturgeon they'd just speared, a reminder that sturgeon have disappeared from the river because of the water quality, Faller said. The park sculpture thus is a call-out on the importance of clean water as well as an homage to the Menominee, and Faller said he believes people can see more than just beauty and detailed craftmanship in this work.
"I really believe if someone looks at a piece of sculpture and thinks about it, they should feel it enhancing their soul, they should learn something from it, that it was a really good experience," Faller said. "I hope they have a feeling of reward for having looked at (the park sculpture), of having learned something from it."
Promoting the races in Luxemburg
We'd also like to give a shout-out to the Kewaunee County Racing Association, a fivesome who became motorsports promoters for the first time at the struggling The 'Burg Speedway in Luxemburg and turned things around even while delaying its season opener, limiting attendance and dealing with other problems related to the pandemic.
Contact Christopher Clough at 920-741-7952, 920-562-8900 or [email protected].
This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: Kewaunee County People of the Year made things happen in a crazy, scary, turbulent 2020