Ringing for a reason

UW-La Crosse students Megan Siekert, left, and Nicole Heinz ring bells at Festival Foods as part of the UWL Bell Ringing Day Nov. 11. UWL faculty, staff and students continue to shape the Coulee Region’s generous giving and volunteering habits

Volunteering is popular on campus

They may feed a family one day. Or house people down on their luck.

The dollars and coins stuffed into the little, red kettles — often put in by children with big smiles on their faces — go far for those at downtown La Crosse’s Salvation Army.

And, the thousands of dollars UWL faculty, staff and students have helped raise in Salvation Army kettles since the late 1980s have done much to help those in need.

When Sen. Thomas Morris advocated for a Normal School in La Crosse at the turn of the century, he pointed to the institution’s benefits to the state’s elementary and secondary teachers, as well as an increase in local wealth and business. That wealth not only included monetary benefits to the local economy, but also the advantages of a willing, vibrant volunteer workforce.

University faculty, staff and students definitely shaped the foundation of the Coulee Region’s generous giving habits. They continue that influence today.

UWL’s long-lasting, bell-ringing relationship with the Salvation Army dates back to retired Biology Professor Tom Claflin’s arrival on campus in 1966. He not only helped establish the university’s River Studies Center in the early 1970s, he also set roots for volunteering.

Claflin’s father-in-law was big on the Salvation Army back in South Dakota where Claflin grew up. After getting the Rivers Studies Center up and running on campus, Claflin turned to volunteering each Christmas.

“It’s fun to ring bells,” says Claflin. “Watching kids come up to put in their nickels and dimes — always with a smile — is very heartwarming.”

In the late 1980s Claflin wanted to share that excitement. He organized a day that all Salvation Army sites throughout La Crosse would have UWL faculty, staff and students as bell ringers. He recruited colleagues and students through the university’s internal newsletter. The all-UWL bell ringing day soon became an annual event.

“Routinely, we would raise $10,000 during the day,” says Claflin.

Since retiring in 2001, Claflin has remained involved with the Salvation Army. He worked with the UWL Habitat for Humanity student organization to round up ringers. This year, the University Centers office headed up efforts for the all-university day Saturday, Nov. 11.

Retired UWL Biology Professor Tom Claflin, left, with Political Science/Public Administration Professor Cecilia Manrique, center, and College of Science and Health Academic Service Director Carla Burkhardt, at a Festival Foods during November’s citywide bell ringing by UWL faculty, staff and students. Claflin started an “All-UWL Bell-ringing Day” in the ’80s that remains a popular volunteering option for the UWL community today.

It’s the dedication and efforts by current and retiring faculty and staff like Claflin who make the university a key player to the region’s volunteering. Last spring a campus survey found that nearly 600 faculty and staff — about half of the total employees — contributed more than 43,600 hours of volunteer service in 2016. That’s equivalent to more than 20 full-time employees for the year. They volunteered with 437 community-related partners and 81 education-related ones.

Students contribute to the region’s volunteering efforts too.

During October, more than 100 area college students— including 60 from UWL — took part in the annual fall “Make a Difference Day.” They completed 15 service projects citywide.

That’s just a one-day snapshot of volunteering by UWL students. A recent self-reporting survey found that 42 percent of UWL seniors volunteered up to five hours weekly. Many students also helped continue The Salvation Army link by kicking off the red kettle season.

“It was a great way for students to get involved,” says Kasie Von Haden, civic engagement and involvement coordinator in University Centers. “We were able to paint the town maroon.”

Von Haden says volunteering and service learning are key for college students. “Ultimately, the purpose for offering these opportunities is to help students grow into citizens who are ready to take on the challenges of tomorrow,” she explains.

UWL has joined with Western Technical College and Viterbo University to support a United Way volunteering website called Ugetconnected. It allows university students to log on and easily find volunteer jobs throughout the region.

Grant Horst, a senior from Mineral Point, joined a learning service community in a residence hall when coming to campus as a sophomore. He found himself quickly immersed in La Crosse, volunteering at WAFER, the Children’s Museum and for an Alzheimer’s Walk.

“I figured it would be a good way to get off to a great start coming to a new campus,” he says. “But, I discovered I really enjoyed volunteering.”

Back home for summer, Horst jumped at an employer’s opportunity to help a local disability organization. The experiences opened the door for him to travel overseas to volunteer — a more reasonably priced option than taking classes at a college. Horst headed down under to New Zealand where he helped plant trees, curb an invasive plant species, and build shelters for penguins.

Sen. Morris’ early vision of a university benefitting the La Crosse area has today stretched across the globe.