United Way Gives Kids a Leg Up

For most people, finding a true life “calling” can take years, even decades. But for Amy Kohnle there was never a question; she inherently knew what she was meant to do in life:  serve others. Kohnle is the Executive Director of Door County’s United Way, and she has come to understand the desire and the need for an organization to give its community a leg up when life has gotten them down.

“Working in community service is what I was meant to do. I truly want to help people and empower them,” Kohnle says.

Kohnle, like United Way’s mission, is dedicated to empowering people to build better lives for themselves. Each year, United Way creates partnerships with Door County human service organizations that are working to improve the lives of others. Organizations such as the Sunshine House, Jim Larsen Boys and Girls Club, and HELP of Door County are funded, in part, by the United Way’s fundraising efforts.

“The work of United Way is not a hand out, but a hand up,” Kohnle explains. The aim of United Way is to teach families who need assistance the skills that will help them improve and maintain a better quality of life and truly give them the ability to achieve.

Matthew Christofferson, one of Gibraltar’s scholarship award winners, receives an award from Christine Salmon at the 2008 Gibraltar Senior Awards Banquet.

About four years ago, during a United Way board meeting, the board members were brainstorming ideas for reaching the youth of the community while bolstering the importance of community service. At the time, two seniors in high school from the community were sitting on the board:  Michele Lodl and Jaque Jorns. The young ladies presented the idea of awarding scholarships for graduating seniors who exhibit a particular dedication to community service and plan on pursuing some type of post-secondary education. The board loved the idea and sought to evaluate and reward students who were volunteering in their community.

Many local high schools require a certain amount of hours of community service in order to graduate. While this is a noble pursuit for all high schoolers, Kohnle worried that some students looked at in a negative light because it’s a requirement. “We wanted to reward those volunteers who went above and beyond, and encourage the volunteering to carry on in their life,” Kohnle asserts.

And carry on it has. Since 2007, eight Door County graduates have been rewarded for their service with a one-time $500 scholarship toward their education. The 2008 recipients, Southern Door’s Kimberly Malvitz, Sevastopol’s Molly Petersilka, and Gibraltar’s Molly Dickson and Matthew Christofferson, all cited the importance and integrity of service and planned to integrate it into their future.

Christofferson, currently a student at Bentley University in Massachusetts, has already found time in his first semester to give back to his campus community, participating in fundraisers to raise awareness for cancer. “As a kid, I was always told to lend a helping hand wherever possible. Not only did I learn this from my parents, but from the community itself. Actually going out and doing community service solidifies this value,” Christofferson explains.

As students in Door County, the recipients demonstrated their dedication to service by volunteering with organizations like the YMCA, the American Red Cross, SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions), and the Salvation Army. Kimberly Malvitz alone contributed hundreds of volunteer hours to Door County organizations such as Southern Door FFA (Future Farmers of America), Habitat for Humanity, Feed My People, and 4-H. It is apparent that the youth of Door County is not only volunteering in the community, but volunteering in a myriad of organizations and capacities.

“I am proud to say that volunteering has helped me change many lives and also changed my life in drastic ways,” says Molly Petersilka. The sentiment that Petersilka echoes here goes to the heart of what it is that motivates people to volunteer. It is not only the reward from seeing the change in one’s community, but also the inward reflection and satisfaction inherent with the work.

This notion of selflessness is a quality that community service at a young age inscribes into the psyche and experience of a person, and consequently, is exactly what the United Way seeks to acknowledge with its scholarship. Christofferson further explains this concept:  “That warm feeling one gets after doing a job for nothing is truly priceless. I myself have experienced it many times. It shapes people into those who stand out in a crowd.”

To be eligible for the scholarship, applicants must have volunteered for the United Way or one of its funded partners during his or her high school career. “We do not evaluate high school transcripts, because this is not an academic award,” Kohnle says. “Instead, we look at their involvement in service, their school, and their community.”

Additionally, students need to write a 500-word essay explaining the role that service has played in their own life. The Community Investment Committee of United Way then evaluates the applicants based on their involvement and their essays.

Recipients of the award reflect the best of the candidates who put their heart into service and make an active decision to make volunteering a central aspect of their young adulthood. By acknowledging their efforts, Kohnle and United Way hope to further encourage service amongst young people in Door County.

Service, especially in Door County, touches lives in the most unexpected ways. Kohnle is quick to point out that the people who require that little extra leg up are not always the likely candidates. “The ones that touch me the most are the ones who never thought they’d need United Way. But that’s what we’re there for. We’re there for you no matter what because you just never know.”

What’s especially heartwarming about this sentiment of Kohnle’s is that providing for the community in this manner is exactly what’s being done through the United Way scholarship program. By acknowledging the youth who are striving to serve, United Way has truly given them a chance at achieving, giving back, and a true leg up toward their future.

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