Aricle from 269 Magazine:
Story: Cathy Knapp
Images: Barry Elz
It’s no secret that happier, healthier employees are more productive and fewer days absent than their less positive counterparts.
Nutritious snacks offered around the office and fun activities are obvious choices to engage a workforce—so too is volunteerism.
Getting out of the day-to-day work environment to volunteer builds teams when co-workers unite around a common and worthwhile goal. Employee satisfaction levels are boosted too when company leadership recognizes and supports their employees’ passions outside of the office.
In “3 Benefits of Volunteering As a Company,” a guest post on VolunteerMatch, the Internet’s largest volunteer engagement network, the act of volunteering “has been shown to lessen symptoms of chronic pain, heart disease, and depression, while also reducing stress and improving overall mental health and happiness.”
A local model for company volunteerism is found at Walther Farms in Three Rivers. A site visit to the Paw Pack program they manage provides an inspirational look at a team united in a worthwhile goal.
A blur of positive energy buzzes throughout the Paw Pack warehouse every Friday morning. An eclectic crew of retirees, students, Walther Farms employees, teachers, and other volunteers from the community are lined up along an assembly line stocked with microwaveable meals, fruit and pudding cups, cereal, juice boxes, and more. They are busy packing weekend food supplies for local school-age children who might otherwise not have enough to eat until Monday.
Large posters with cheery artwork crafted in a rainbow of crayon colors adorn the walls—thank you gifts from the kids who have enjoyed the weekend nourishment.
Laughter and friendly banter abound as the group works at a feverish pace, completing their benevolent task in a little over an hour. The students bustle aboard the bus heading back to school, employees return to their normal work day, and community volunteers disperse to other daily rituals. The overhead door is closed, lights are extinguished, and the warehouse lapses into silence.
“In the beginning it took us an hour and a half to do fifty backpacks,” said Jason Walther, President and CEO of Walther Farms and a Friday volunteer. “Now, we can do 474 packs in an hour.”
The monumental project and volunteer teams are impressively orchestrated by Nancy Poynter, Accounting Assistant at Walther Farms. She also leads several hours of preparation each week prior to the assembly operation. Poynter explained how the initiative was born, “One of our employees saw an article in the newspaper about a food program. It was exciting because the food was distributed directly to the kids.”
Such a program did not exist in Three Rivers at the time where over half of the students at Three Rivers Community Schools rely on free or reduced lunch for their weekday meals. Walther Farms encourages all of its locations to volunteer and the Three Rivers facility had found the perfect project.
“Feeding people. It’s what we do,” Poynter added simply. “Farmers make an impact on the community.”
A plan began to formulate. “I went to the school board with the idea,” Poynter said. “The timing was perfect because there was an intern ahead of me on the agenda, and she spoke about how she couldn’t teach the kids on Monday mornings. Too many of them were hungry from not having enough to eat over the weekend.”
So in 2009, the Walther Farms crew began by assembling weekend food packs for 12 kids in Walther’s conference room.
Today, teachers and counselors refer children for whom they believe there is a need. Permission slips are completed by a student’s parents or guardians and no further questions are asked. All schools in the Three Rivers Community Schools system and the elementary school in White Pigeon are eligible for the program.
As word spread, the project outgrew the Walther Farms’ conference room and the initial employee team.
“This year, we started with serving 320 kids,” Poynter said. “More kids will be referred during the school year. Last year, we maxed out at 474 food packs. The need gets bigger every year. We serve homeless kids and kids that are living on people’s couches.”
“The permission slips could make you cry,” she continued, visibly touched.
When asked if the passion for this project affects the team back at the office, Poynter replied,
“Absolutely. You’re energized. You’re emotionally impacted. We all cry a lot of tears together.”
The weekend packs contain two breakfasts, two drinks, two lunches, fruit and pudding or Jell-O cups, and seven snacks. Also, every other week during the school year, a voucher is provided for a free gallon of milk, one dozen eggs, and a loaf of bread. Quality is important and all of the food is name-brand.
Poynter described the magnitude of the program.
“It’s a series of partners,” she said. “The food comes from the Three Rivers Harding’s store. Tom, the local manager, and Spartan are so committed to the community. They sell us the food at a discount, deliver it in one of their trucks, and unload it.”
When the project got too big for the conference room, Jamie Clark of Clark Logic brought forth a solution in the form of his warehouse building at 420 14th Street.
“He provides the space at very low rent,” says Poynter. “And, he takes away all the cardboard packaging for recycling.”
The volunteer crew has grown too. Toby Gose, Special Education Teacher at Three Rivers High School, brings his students, who gain a work study experience from their efforts. Walther Farms’ employees and community volunteers, representing a diversity of ages and backgrounds, complete the team.
Funding for the program originated from the Walther Farms Foundation. The company takes a percentage of its profits and puts them into an endowment, providing financing for this and other programs.
“We can’t make an impact in a large footprint,” Poynter said. “But, we can affect the small needs in the community. These kids were falling through the cracks.”
When school is out during the summer, kids can pick up their Paw Packs weekly at the Three Rivers Farmers Market with the added bonus of a three dollar voucher they can use buy fresh fruits and vegetables.
“We can affect the small needs in the community. These kids were falling through the cracks.”
When asked if the passion for this project affects the team back at the office, Poynter replied, “Absolutely. You’re energized. You’re emotionally impacted. We all cry a lot of tears together.” The camaraderie that has resulted is clearly evident.
Poynter explained that the Three Rivers Paw Packs program is modeled after the Generous Hands program in Vicksburg. Generous Hands leaders assisted Walther Farms in starting Paw Packs. Since then, the Paw Packs leaders have helped a group in Marcellus start a similar program and are now working with a group in Hartford.
A gift that truly keeps on giving, volunteerism, as shown by Walther Farms, is an investment in people—within the company and the community.