Second Chances

Written by Andrew Eddmenson

“I’m trying to remember what came next…”

Leo looked up from his sheet of paper.  “I just have these little memories.  I guess that’s all life really is when it comes down to it.”

“You know,” I replied, “I think the best stories are told out of order.”

When I first arrived at Evergreen Retirement Community, the room was full of other residents and teenagers sitting at tables across from one another just as Leo and I were. All of us were part of a wonderful project called Write Your Life, which pairs high school students and young professionals with senior citizens to help them write their life stories. The room was full, but after just a few moments of small talk, I forgot anyone else was there.

At 82, Leo Karner is “just a young punk around this place.” Originally from California, he moved to Wisconsin after suffering a stroke to be closer to his grandchildren.  Clearly a skilled socialite, Leo carries the conversation. His sly smile leads you to believe he knows some marvelous secret no one else knows. He writes incredibly well despite his dyslexia and gnarled arthritic hands, but lets me do most of the writing to make me feel useful, I suspect.

At this point, we’re only brainstorming significant events, people, and accomplishments – a lifelong highlight reel that previews the rich stories to come. Leo takes small detours along the way, but I don’t mind: Begging his mom for a bicycle and getting a used one for three dollars with tires that only lasted a block and a half before going flat (school was about five blocks away); finding out his favorite hobby store was closing due to a burglary shortly before the neighbor kid offered to sell him some “discounted” model airplane engines; getting a flat tire during a cross-country road trip with three of his best friends and the devious events that followed. It doesn’t take long for me to realize what a tremendous opportunity I’ve been given—and that Leo has incredibly bad luck with tires.

My own grandfather passed away in 1996 from lung cancer. In all of the memorable moments we shared, I never took the opportunity to ask him about his life and write down his stories. To be fair, I was far too young and expectedly self-absorbed to recognize this prospect before it was too late. As I sat across from Leo and learned about his early life today, I came to realize how precious these stories are and how important it is that they not be lost forever due to the indifference of a younger generation.

I may never be able to capture all of my grandfather’s stories, but I now have a chance to capture Leo’s stories for his grandchildren who will undoubtedly cherish them one day.  Life has a funny way of giving us second chances, and they aren’t without their irony. As it happens, my grandfather was also named Leo.

Writing with Grace

Written by Yessra Sankari

As a 20 year old, young, full of passion and constantly running around, I never thought of spending two hours of my crazy, busy day with an 89-year old Grace at Evergreen Retirement Community. I never thought of just sitting down with Grace and embracing her meaningful life story. I never thought about taking the time to experience someone else’s life of struggle and happiness.

I always catch myself lost in thought, struggling with my life experiences. What Grace taught me through the program, Write your Life, Oshkosh, run by Palestinian-American author Ibtisam Barakat, was that your experiences define who you are. Your experiences shape you to be the person you are today.

One thing that I learned was that everyone has her own story to share, her own struggles riding underneath her shadow, and her own happiness sparkling in her eyes. Her phrase of “Never worry about anything that will never happen” still rings in my ear. I think I will cherish that forever.

Working Waterfest

Working Waterfest

Written by Jerry Medina

Waterfest Oshkosh | Rotaract Oshkosh

On Thursday, August 15, Rotaract Oshkosh and Downtown Rotary joined forces at Waterfest to sell food, drinks, and cheers (you could buy a cheer with your tips) to the crowd who came to watch “The Tubes” and raise funds for our respective organizations.  Usually, two groups volunteer to handle the concession duties at Waterfest, but this year the other service group had a scheduling error, and didn’t show up. Luckily, the Rotarians who were there were able to tough it out and cover both the east and west concession and beer islands.

Working Waterfest | Rotaract Oshkosh

Some of our responsibilities that night included taking tickets at the entrance, taking money in the parking lots, selling beer and selling food. (Brandon even got his hands dirty and mopped a couple floors.) Perhaps the highlight of the evening – besides the music and the lead singers costume changes between every song – were the loud cheers that everyone in the concession stands would give whenever we received a tip. It was nice to indulge in glass nickel pizza and soda, too.

We don’t have a final count as yet, but it doesn’t really matter: With as much fun as we had that night, and the goodwill we spread in the community, the event was a success!

What Does It Take to End Isolation

What Does It Take to End Isolation

By Kate Salter, Intern, Women’s Fund

The Women’s Fund of Oshkosh welcomes all volunteers to support the Campaign to End Isolation. This campaign consists of three phases:

  • The first phase will raise awareness of the issue of isolation.
  • The second will create understanding; what does it mean to be isolated?
  • And the third will empower the community to take action to end isolation.

The first phase—awareness—is where we need your help. But first, here’s how the campaign originated.

In 2008, to celebrate its 10th anniversary, the Women’s Fund launched the Power of 10. We gave 10 groups of 10 individuals, $10,000 to make an impact in the lives of our mothers, daughters, sisters and friends. Our groups consisted of a wide range of demographics—from teenagers to the elderly and single moms to dads of daughters. We promised them we would LISTEN to the issues and everyday challenges they face, and that we would act on what we learned.

As we listened, we heard one common theme: They all felt some kind of isolated. Teenagers said they have 800 Facebook friends but no one to confide in. Elderly women told us that no one had come to visit in more than a month. Single moms explained that their couple‐friends would stop asking them over after a divorce. Everyone was feeling alone.

We suspected that isolation was much more than just a feeling, though, so we started doing some research. Here’s what we found:

  • Isolation is as dangerous to your health as smoking.
  • Loneliness takes a greater toll on your health than obesity or physical inactivity.
  • Social isolation changes the way the brain functions.
  • Being lonely increases the risk of dementia by 50 dementia.

With the stories from our groups and the statistics we found, the Campaign to End Isolation was born.

Rotaract Oshkosh | Womens Fund | Campaign to End IsolationThe first part of the campaign, building awareness, features our seven feet tall by three feet wide isolation booth. The booth is meant to grab the attention of passersby and create a diversion in the everyday routine while representing the feeling of someone being surrounded by people but unable to connect with them.

We’ve found that the most effective way to raise awareness with the isolation booth is to have someone either near it or inside of it. This is where we need your help! We’d love if you could sign up for a shift to:

  • Set up/tear down the booth
  • Stand inside the booth
  • Hand out information outside the booth
  • Maybe even write a blog post about your experience!

Join us and be the change in our community. If you have any questions, or would like to learn about how to sign up to volunteer, please email Kate Salter at [email protected]. Also, visit our website, to read stories and pledges made by real people in our community.

Pantry Matters

Pantry Matters

Written by Bethany Lerch

In 1989, a handful of churches worked together to start the Ecumenical Food Pantry in a small room inside Trinity Episcopal in downtown Oshkosh. What began as a small customer base soon grew beyond the 12′ by 25′ room inside Parish Hall. That’s when the seven churches really built momentum with volunteers and financial support.

Then, in January 2008, it evolved into a new nonprofit organization, the Oshkosh Area Community Pantry. That year, as poverty rose, it served more than 14,000 customers. And with poverty comes food insecurity. According to Feeding America:

  • In 2011, 50.1 million Americans lived in food insecure households
  • In 2011, 14.9 percent of households were food insecure.
  • In 2011, households with children reported food insecurity at a significantly higher rate than those without children, 20.6 percent compared to 12.2percent.
  • In 2011, households that had higher rates of food insecurity than the national average included households with children (20.6 percent), especially households with children headed by single women (36.8 percent) or single men (24.9 percent), Black non-Hispanic households (25.1 percent) and Hispanic households (26.2 percent).
  • In 2011, 8.8 percent of seniors living alone were food insecure.

Food insecurity is a serious problem in Winnebago County. It means that children and adults may have to drastically reduce their food intake or resort to unhealthy foods that are more affordable. Consumption, or lack thereof, impacts academic performance for children in school and perpetuates higher crime rates in adults. Poverty, and hunger, are powerful. Mahatma Gandhi once said “Poverty is the worst kind of violence.”

In a small effort to help end this cycle, Rotaract Oshkosh has dedicated itself to a monthly volunteer commitment at the Oshkosh Area Community Pantry. We want to make a difference for people affected by food insecurity right here at home. Join us the first Monday of every month anytime between 3-7 pm to help check in customers, organize food shipments and stock shelves. The next time: Tomorrow, Monday, 1 July.

Until then, here are a few photos from our 17 June service project with the pantry:

Lionhearted Kids Run

Lionhearted Kids Run

Written by Bethany Lerch

On Saturday, April 20th, five Rotaract Oshkosh members braved the cold to volunteer at the Lionhearted Kids Run through Christine Ann Domestic Abuse Services, Inc.

When we arrived at Leach Amphitheater that morning, volunteers had already set up the course for the 3-6 year olds and 7-10 year olds. We were shown where to go and where to direct the kids when they were running. Then, as if on cue, “athletes” and their families began to stream in. They, too, were bundled up tight to stay warm. (Lots of animal hats with ears and eyes on them.)

Children ages 3-6 ran one loop through the park, but 7-8 year olds had to run one half mile along the river to the bridge and back. The “big kids” had to do two of those laps. It was one thing to tell the smaller children to “Turn here!” and “Go this way!” and quite another to cheer on the ones that had to go a longer distance.

I surprised myself, actually, and got really excited for the 9-10 year olds who had to go twice around, running from one side of their “route” to the other to cheer them on. The track captain in me came out in full force as I yelled for the rosie-cheeked young bucks to “Pump your arms!” and “Keep going! You’re almost there!”

I think I was as exhilarated for those kids as they were to be running the race. Maybe more. It was just a couple hours of my morning, but those kids and their wide smiles made my day.

It was a small kind of rush and I left feeling a very real kind of happy inside, uplifted even. Thank you Brandon, Michelle, Virginia and Crystal for toughing it out in the cold with me that morning. And many thanks to the Christine Ann Center for giving us the opportunity to do it.

Why We Serve

Rotary International was founded on one basic principle: “Service above self.”

It all started in 1905 as the world’s first volunteer service organization. Now, in 2013, Rotary International has 1.2 million members in more than 34,000 clubs all over the globe. Where Rotarians are able to give time and financial resources towards their respective communities, Rotaract is a little bit different.

Indeed our name means Rotary in action. As Rotaractors, we begin “at the local, grassroots level, with members addressing their communities’ physical and social needs while promoting international understanding and peace through a framework of friendship and service.” But what, really, does it mean “to serve”? Here’s our take:

Michelle Dei, Running Events Chair: You know, today I saw Jim and Ryan from the shelter by the bridge. I sat with them while waiting for the older children. I know for a fact had I not volunteered at the warming shelter this year I wouldn’t have sat down and chatted with them. Helping at the Day by Day Warming Shelter has made me a better person. And, as the older kids started running towards the turn around point, Jim and Ryan started cheering for the kids…

The best thing about volunteering is the awareness it has brought to my life. It has made me appreciate the roof over my head and the shoes on my feet. The selfish side of me is also grateful for our service opportunites because of the friendship they have helped me create.

Michelle Dei, Running Events Chair | Rotaract Oshkosh
Michelle is a runner and organizes charity runs for Rotaract Oshkosh

Joe Mann, Historian: Volunteering is a way of giving back to the community for the many things I have been blessed with. Service is a way of putting community above one’s self. Service is taking time and doing something in hopes that it will make a difference, no matter how small, in someone else’s life. It is a way for me to make this world a better place, one step at a time.

Oshkosh Area Humane Society | Rotaract Oshkosh
(Finally found a picture of Joe, our Historian!) Here he is at the Oshkosh Area Humane Society.

Becky Snyder, Secretary: To me, service has always been something I enjoy doing. There are so many great ways to become involved in every community and there is no better feeling than giving your time, energy, ideas and passion to an organization or group in need. And, there is no better feeling than leaving a day of volunteering feeling like I truly accomplished something, made new friends, learned more about a particular group and was able to use my skills and passions for something truly amazing. I think it’s important to provide service when and wherever possible – use the things you know, want to know, like to do and hope to do to find ways to get involved. It’s fun and it’s always appreciated!

Dan and Becky with Crystal and Virginia at the Christine Ann Center | Rotaract Oshkosh
Dan and Becky Snyder with Rotaract Oshkosh members Crystal and Virginia volunteering at the Christine Ann Center.

Dan Snyder, Treasurer: Service Above Self” is the motto of Rotary International and its affiliates. I, myself, had never been exposed to Rotary when I was asked to help start a Rotaract Club, and thus had never thought about what service really means to me. But in the lasts months we have been helping a variety of organizations, and service has really come to the forefront of my thoughts.

Despite what circumstances you are in, taking part in service projects really shows you the dire straits people are faced with in their lives. We have all had rotten days and hopefully all of us have had someone help pick up the pieces and make us whole again. It is this act that really draws me to continue providing “Service Above Self.”

The feeling that you get knowing you are making a difference in someone else’s life and allowing them to live a life that is that much closer to “normal” is extremely rewarding. This does not even take into account the fact that while making this difference for someone, I am able to spend time with my friends and have a good time giving back to the community. In the end, I would not have been able to tell you what service meant to me six months ago, but my time with Rotaract Oshkosh has really opened my eyes to what I can offer as an individual and the difference I can make in someone else’s life.

Jerry Medina, Vice President: To me, community service gives you a feeling of fulfillment and overall general purpose in life. Getting involved in the community naturally gets you involved with other like-minded individuals who share the same core values and beliefs, regardless of their upbringing or backgrounds. Community service also gives you great life experiences and a feeling of well-roundedness you may not get through you work or school life, or any way else for that matter.

Jerry Medina, Vice President | Rotaract Oshkosh
Jerry, working hard at the Oshkosh Area Community Pantry.

Bethany Lerch, President: There is something very nearly divine about helping others; few other feelings rival it. When you work hard to make a difference in the circumstances of someone else’s life, even if only for an hour, it is tremendously fulfilling. Then to see the good that has come of your actions, and oftentimes the raw joy others experience because of the time and effort you’ve given … well, I know no better life high. Volunteering and serving in my community enriches my soul and I intend to do it for a very long time.

Bethany Lerch, President | Rotaract Oshkosh
Bethany, volunteering as a sidewalker for BEAMING, Inc., a local therapeutic riding organization for children and adults with special needs.

Now onto you: What moves you? Why do you serve?

If you’d like to become more involved in the as a volunteer through Rotaract Oshkosh, come learn more about us at our Tuesday, 30 April, chartering ceremony or our May meeting on Tuesday, 7 May. Both events are at 6 pm at the Algoma Club in Oshkosh. Food and drinks will be provided by Manila Resto. Hope to see you there!

Dancing at the Food Pantry

Written by Rotaract Oshkosh member Candice Lane.

We were sitting at the kitchen table arguing about the meaning of success. Exasperated he exclaimed, “It’s a family! A spouse, kids, a home we can afford! A job in an unstable economy—it’s all we need! Maybe it’s about time you realize what success really means.”

I just shook my head. He didn’t understand.

It had been a discouraging week. Copy after copy, one phone call after another, nonstop emails. I was frazzled. All I could see from the outside looking in was an overworked young professional who, five years ago thought she’d be further ahead than she felt as a glorified assistant struggling to find meaning in futile tasks. Where was “success” in that?

Frustrated that he couldn’t understand the stars in my eyes for a “bigger” future, I left for my monthly spot at the food pantry. I began work right away: unloading milk cartons, setting collections of sodas, shelving the usual canned foods. The conversation had left me angry so I kept my head down and stayed busy.

When I did look up, it occurred to me that no one appeared “down” on their luck or unhappy about the circumstances that brought them to the pantry. I saw an older couple, the man helping his wife through the aisle; a mother with two smiling children, a younger couple happily planning their meal out loud.

For me, it was a brief glimpse into a smaller, more meaningful kind of success.

There were signs of hard times in some of the people, but those things didn’t matter. Wherever I went and whoever I talked to, that weight seemed to disappear. It was just a family, a couple, a mom, a single guy… all of whom were thankful for the help from the pantry. They had no choice other than to accept the cards being dealt to them, but they did have a choice about how to accept them. The people I saw were overwhelmingly grateful and, despite it all, they still smiled.

There are different versions of success, to be sure: A mansion in the Hollywood hills, a ranch of roaming horses in the Rockies, or finally liquidating that stack of student loans. But I think there is a more simple definition of success, too. Instead of fighting the day-to-day as so many people do, what about thinking of success as the ability to appreciate each day… and dance with it instead.

Me? I’m going to dance.

Felines and Friends: Friday Night at the Animal Shelter

Felines and Friends: Friday Night at the Animal Shelter

Written by Becky Snyder, Rotaract Oshkosh

My love for animals is sort of excessive.

As a proud owner of adopted kitties and someone who can’t wait to adopt a dog (or two or three once we have the home space) it’s no surprise that volunteering at the Oshkosh Area Humane Society with our Rotaract group was high on my wish list.

Arriving at the shelter, I was pleasantly surprised to see the welcoming memorial garden (even in the snow it was tranquil and lovely) and the two cat galleries at the front of the building. I barely made it inside the lobby before I was inside the cat room scooping up a new and unsuspecting feline friend.

The evening began with an in-depth tour of the facility. Going from the lobby to the kennels to the caregiving area, I couldn’t be more pleased with the shelter. Mild-tempered cats can roam the shelter as they please, free to be pet or picked up by visitors and potential adopters. You don’t see tiny wire cages, but suites and large rooms; television screens with water bubbles for cats to paw at; private rooms for dogs who are not yet accustomed to the shelter environment, and huge glass “galleries” for adoptable cats.

Although I had a hard time paying attention to the tour (Read: Easily distracted by cute animals), I learned that the shelter does everything to help homeless become healthy and feel cared for and loved during their stay. One of the most interesting things to see was a room specifically for incoming cats with litter box issues. One reason a cat is surrendered may be because he or she isn’t using the litter box correctly. To help those particular cats, the shelter has a space where cats stay for up to a week to assess the nature of the reported problem. Is it a behavioral issue with the cat or another factor, like a home that failed to keep the litter box clean or had too many cats, both of which create added stress. What the shelter has found is that almost 99 percent of cats do not have a problem using a litter box when the box is well-kept.

We also had time to visit the 30 bunnies the shelter rescued from a home just a week ago. It’s sad, and I suppose naïve, to think that everyone who owns animals takes superb care of them. And that;s exactly why properly run shelters and foster homes are so important to animal welfare efforts.

Now to the nitty gritty: We were given our tasks and divided and conquered. Meredith and I bleached and organized a hallway near dog kennels to ensure that no airborne illnesses or bacteria could be transferred from food, toys or homes. We then joined the rest of the group to finish bleaching and sanitizing “rescue,” the new cat arrival room. When a cat is brought into the Humane Society, they are quarantined in a private, secluded area to make sure they do not carry any diseases and to assess their personality and temperament. (After a week or so, shelter staff conduct a “catitude” or a “caninality” assessment to determine the personality of an animal before moving them to the adoption floor.)

All in, we had a great time volunteering. And, actually, my husband and I are going back soon to adopt a new pet. I would encourage anyone interested in helping the Oshkosh Area Humane Society to check out their website ( or stop by to visit or donate or even adopt an animal.

As Bob Barker would say, “Help control the pet population. Have your pet spayed or neutered.” (…I had to!)

Until next time,

Rotaract Oshkosh at the Oshkosh Area Humane Society
Jerry and Meredith, Becky and Dan, Ray, Joe and Bethany

The Value of Warmth

Written by Virginia Pliska, Rotaract Oshkosh

It’s Tuesday night. I’d usually be rushing around stressed about all of the things I didn’t get done, even after missing the time I promised myself I’d be bed when my alarm went off that morning. The night would have started with me rummaging around my apartment for some food, switching the laundry, and wasting time online. The entire night would have flown by…as so many others do.

But not this Tuesday night. On March 12, I joined Bethany at the Day by Day Warming shelter, a facility that offers shelter for adult men and women who have no other housing or shelter options in Oshkosh. (For more information please visit

While the 20 residents for the evening were served a hearty meal made by volunteers, we did their laundry and helped check them into the showers. The “regulars” knew exactly what to do, quietly making their beds as some stayed up watching a little TV until it was their turn for a hot shower.

The mood was calm. I thought about how much I take for granted the warmth of my home and the freedom to shower whenever I please. I am so lucky to have plenty of clothes to wash and, well, having to hang them up isn’t so bad.

It wasn’t even ten o’clock when everything was ready for the night and most of the lights were out. We slipped out silently, making sure we didn’t interrupt their dreams.