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The Topeka Capital-Journal | Sunday, November 19, 2017 | 1

Corporate Bigs engages students in STEM activities 2 | Sunday, November 19, 2017 | The Topeka Capital-Journal

Program pairs employee mentors with youngsters


For information on the Corporate Bigs program or Big Brothers Big Sisters, visit trip and making a PowerPoint presentation. Maydew said it is difficult to gauge the long-term effect of Westar’s Corporate Bigs program because it is only in its fourth year. However, he said, the students’ scores in science and math have improved.

By Jan Biles

Nine-year-old Jessica Phifer and Westar Energy Inc. employee Chelsea Jenks unwrap their Subway sandwiches and open their bags of chips at a table in the lunchroom at Williams Science and Fine Arts Magnet Elementary School. Jessica and Jenks, a human resources analyst at Westar, have been sharing lunch times and participating in the company’s Corporate Bigs program for about a year. The site-based program focuses on science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM. “My mom signed me up for it,” the fourth-grader said. “I like being here, because I like Chelsea. She’s a good friend. She’s nice, smart and funny.” Jenks said she first learned about Westar’s long-time commitment of giving back to the community and encouraging employees to volunteer during a nine-month internship with the company. After she was hired two years ago, she heard one of the youngsters in the Corporate Bigs program needed a match. “I had a lot of mentors, and I really love science and I knew they did science experiments,” she said of the reasons she became involved. “After I met Jessica, I said it was definitely a yes. At first, I didn’t know what to expect. … It’s cool, and I want to be a part of it.”

Focused on STEM

The Corporate Bigs program is an initiative of Westar Energy, Kansas Big Brothers Big Sisters serving Shawnee County and Topeka Public Schools, said Eric Maydew, Topeka area manager of Kansas Big Brothers Big Sisters. The Westar program is the only Corporate Bigs program operating in the state. For one hour on Tuesdays

Role models


Brandon Jones, Westar Energy Inc. plant support engineer, interacts with 10-year-old Detrick Johnson, a fifth-grader at Williams Science and Fine Arts Magnet Elementary School during a recent Corporate Bigs presentation at Westar’s office in downtown Topeka. The presentations focus on topics related to science, technology, engineering and math.

Chelsea Jenks, a human resources analyst at Westar Energy Inc., and 9-year-old Jessica Phifer, a student at Williams Science and Fine Arts Magnet Elementary School, are participating in Westar’s Corporate Bigs program. In addition to weekly programs at Westar’s downtown Topeka office, the two also have lunch together each month at Williams Elementary. three times a month, 10 fourthand fifth-graders from Williams Elementary are transported after school to Westar’s downtown office, where they meet

their mentors and together engage in STEM activities, said Patrick Woods, director of talent management and diversity at Westar. All of the students,

selected by the school’s administrators, also participated in Corporate Bigs last year. Once a month, the adult mentors from Westar eat lunch with the students at their school. Woods said the Corporate Bigs program has three purposes: creating multiyear Big Brother Big Sister matches; introducing the kids to the corporate atmosphere and the jobs people do; and increasing workforce development, especially among minorities, girls and youngsters who don’t see themselves as ever working at the company. “Fifty percent of our employment base is retiring in five to 10 years, so that’s one reason we’re doing this,” he said. Woods said Corporate Bigs activities are designed to be compatible with the school’s STEM-related curriculum. This year’s activities include building a generation portfolio, developing a plan to provide electricity to a fictional service territory, an aquaponics field

Brandon Jones, Westar plant support engineer, decided to join the Corporate Bigs program about a month ago and was paired with 10-year-old Detrick Johnson, a fifth-grader at Williams Elementary. During a recent after-school presentation in the Westar conference room, they petted a bald python and observed a box turtle. “I’ve learned a lot of things about electricity and engineering,” Detrick said of being part of the STEM-focused program. Jones said he volunteered for Corporate Bigs, in part, because his father told him one of the greatest things he could do was to share his talents and knowledge to help steer a young person on a more positive path. “Generally speaking, a lot of the children or youth we serve face multiple factors that may have a negative impact on their lives,” Maydew said. “We try to create one-on-one relationships … a positive role model that shows them a different life and puts them on a path to a more promising future.” Big Brothers Big Sisters serves 200-plus children and youths, ages 5 to 17, in Shawnee County, Maydew said. More than 200 additional children are on waiting lists to be matched with a Big Brother or Big Sister. “And that’s an ever-growing number,” he said. Contact niche editor Jan Biles at (785) 295-1292.

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Companies bank on employees’ desire to volunteer By Emily Moore

Special to The Capital-Journal

A good salary isn’t the only thing employees consider when seeking a job. They are also looking for an employer who encourages and provides opportunities for volunteerism. Laura Hovind, director of marketing at The Trust Co., in Manhattan, said the company’s interest in community service pairs well with employee interest in volunteering. “There’s a bit of a symbiosis going on where this idea of giving back is deeply embedded in the culture of the company, and so the company attracts and hires people who are very empathetic and want to serve,” Hovind said. “So it’s a good thing for the company to have this type of person on the staff, because that’s how we serve our clients, too.” The Trust Co. pays for its employees to have memberships in different community organizations. President and CEO Mark Knackendoffel said the company’s building serves as a site for various community organization meetings, and the company helps fund different community projects. Knackendoffel said he seeks to “live in a better community,” which is part of why civic engagement is so important to him. “The best way to do that is to support those organizations and initiatives that I think will contribute to the betterment of our community,” he said. Similarly, Envista Credit Union helps its employees in Lawrence, Topeka and Hutchinson be civically engaged by finding volunteer opportunities for employees and giving them the chance to sign up. “I think it just creates some positivity, and then to see the kind of impact that they’re having on the community in their small way and coming together, that makes a big impact,” said Ashley Schmidt, marketing manager at Envista Credit Union. Schmidt said Envista made a


From left, Envista Credit Union employees Shayla Borsdorf, June McGehee, Catherine Flory and Sam Rabe bag sweet potatoes at Harvesters in Topeka.


Shelly Bronson, who works at Capitol Federal in Topeka, helps paint a house as part of her volunteer efforts with Christmas in Action.

Maribeth Kieffer, left, executive director of Flint Hills Breadbasket, and Anne Lewis-Smith, vice president, chief financial officer and operations manager at The Trust Co. in Manhattan, look over information at the community food network.

weeklong community service effort in mid-October, during which the company paid each employee for their usual work hours while giving them a half day to do volunteer work. The effort was in honor of International Credit Union Day, which was Oct. 19. Schmidt said staff provided 290 hours of community service during the week. The interests of employees

er Topeka. “We don’t really pigeonhole our employees into doing certain things,” she said. “We try to find their passion.” The donations raised each quarter by the branch office are matched by the larger Capitol Federal foundation. “I think it increases morale to be able to help other people,” Von Stiers said. “They really do like volunteering.”


matter in some company incentives, as well. Ruth Von Stiers, vice president/branch manager at Capitol Federal in Topeka, said the financial institution lets employees vote quarterly on a nonprofit organization the company will fund internally for that quarter. In addition, the company participates each year in the Nancy Perry Day of Caring for the United Way of Great-

Schmidt said Envista Credit Union employees also enjoy and actively seek out volunteer opportunities. “So we want to provide an outlet for them to get involved,” she said. Collectively, employees from the three companies have volunteered for a variety of organizations, including The Salvation Army and Big Brothers Big Sisters.

4 | Sunday, November 19, 2017 | The Topeka Capital-Journal

City employees pitch in to build Habitat homes Pipeline to success: Partnerships give ‘big jump’ to house production By Chris Marshall

Special to The Capital-Journal

With corporate volunteer partnerships popping up across Topeka, it’s no surprise city workers have joined the cause to help improve the community. A group of water department employees are getting their feet wet in home construction this fall, spending four hours of paid time off once a month to help build houses with Topeka Habitat for Humanity. The utilities department made the commitment to send eight to 10 workers to S.E. Powell Street, where two houses are being built side-by-side near Lake Shawnee. The groundwork for the partnership was laid when Bob Sample, interim utilities director, reached out to Topeka Habitat with an offer to help. “We came up with the idea during a labor management meeting,” Sample said. “One of the folks had the idea that it would be good for us to do volunteer work in general, and (union chairman) Ron Perry suggested Habitat for Humanity might be a good organization to start with.” Upon taking Sample’s call, Nikki MacMillan, Topeka Habitat’s community engagement director, agreed. “It’s something we’re seeing a lot of employers across the city do to engage employees,” she said. “There are lots of statistics and reports that show employee happiness is higher when they can engage in the community in different ways. With the City of Topeka being such a large employer, we hope it will grow from here.” When the water employees first visited the construction site Sept. 12, only the foundation and framing were in place. The timing of the partnership, which goes through December, should allow the workers to see HABITAT continues on 9


Some city water department employees are spending four hours of paid time off once a month to build houses for Topeka Habitat for Humanity. From left are city employees Mitch White, Ron Perry, Dustin Jessepe, Mike Vannordstand, Jeremy Holt, Pete Whitlock, Chris Holbert and Ed Hirt.


Chris Holbert, left, and Dustin Jessepe work on a water meter brought in by a customer. Jessepe and Holbert are two of the several city water department employees who volunteer with Topeka Habitat for Humanity.


Mike Vannordstand, who works for the city’s water department, throws away trash after making a repair. Vannordstand and other city water department workers are building two Topeka Habitat for Humanity houses at S.E. Powell Street.

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Match your skills with volunteer opportunities Many organizations are looking for assistance from those with time, money to give By Rick Peterson Jr.

No shortage of volunteer opportunities are available for Topekans who are looking to make a difference in the community with their time and effort. However, it can be difficult pinpointing the best way to use one’s unique skill set to assist nonprofit organizations. Often, those wanting to volunteer can look to their own hobbies and interests as a starting point. For Sungkyu Kwak, his love for playing soccer led to an opportunity to volunteer with the Sunflower State Games, an annual Kansas sports festival over three consecutive weekends in July. Kwak, 54, was named the 2017 Sunflower State Games Volunteer of the Year for lending a hand to help run SSG indoor soccer and cricket. “I participated in SSG soccer for more than 15 years and began volunteering to continue to be a part of this great event as my playing days came to an end,” Kwak said when named volunteer of the year. “Also, it is a good opportunity to give back to the community.” SSG executive director Mitch Gross said Kwak and other volunteers are vital to the success of the Sunflower State Games, which drew 7,222 competitors this year. The Games’ mission is to “provide Kansas citizens with a wholesome avenue for personal development through sports and physical activity, to recognize their dedication and achievement and to provide an opportunity to participate in an Olympic-style event.” Gross said the Games has about 700 volunteers each year. “I think it goes without saying that our event really doesn’t happen without our volunteers,” Gross said. “We have volunteers in many forms. The majority of our sport commissioners actually volunteer their time to direct our event. And then we have just the general volunteers in the community who are gracious enough to show up and give us


Sunflower State Games executive director Mitch Gross says about 700 volunteers contribute to the Games each year. their time and assistance at any one of our 47 events for the Sunflower State Games, whether it be scorekeeping or handing out water or raking sand at our track meets and things like that. They’re completely vital to have a positive experience for our athletes.” Gross said many of the volunteers simply enjoy being around sports they’re passionate about and make it a point to volunteer each year. “I think the majority of our volunteers do it because they see it as a good thing for our community,” he said. “They feel like by them giving time to our event they’re making an investment in the community. “Also, many of them are really passionate about, not only sports in general, but in many cases their particular sport of interest. They want to see it thrive. They want to see it grow. The best way of doing that is to provide a good experience that will only increase interest in their given sport.” Here are some other volunteer opportunities that might cater to specific interests and skill sets, followed by website links with in-

formation on how to get involved. n Pet lovers: Helping Hands Humane Society has a variety of tasks available for volunteers. h h h s top e k a . or g /volu nte e r/ volunteer-mentor-schedule-updates/ Cat Association of Topeka also needs help from volunteers and with fundraising. Learn more n Other animal lovers: The Topeka Zoo seeks volunteers for a number of events. volg i s t i c s . c o m /e x /p o r t a l . d l l / OD?FROM=119247 n Those with health care experience: Stormont Vail Health and St. Francis Health have a wide array of opportunities, including some with specific qualifications. stormontva i /volunteeropportunities-1; stfrancistopeka. org/about-us/volunteer-opportunities/ n Those looking to mentor children: Volunteers play a key role in the operation of the Boys & Girls Club. n Theater and performing art lovers: Opportunities are available with the Topeka Performing Arts Center.


Sunflower State Games executive director Mitch Gross says volunteers are vital in order for the Games to have a variety of events.

6 | Sunday, November 19, 2017 | The Topeka Capital-Journal

Green Team: Stewards of the outdoors


Members of Westar Energy Inc.’s Green Team are building an observation deck at the Baker Wetlands Education Center, on the southern edge of Lawrence. From left are Dennis Kidwell; Jeremy Davis; Ben Postlethwait, manager of biology conservation and sustainability for Westar Energy Inc.; Adam Ramos; and Scott Gilsdorf.

Westar volunteers take on between 60 and 80 projects a year By Jan Biles

LAWRENCE — Scott Gilsdorf and four other Westar Energy Inc. employees aligned the recycled power poles they were using to build an observation deck at the Baker Wetlands Education Center, on the southern edge of Lawrence. As part of Westar’s Green

Team, the workers can volunteer up to eight hours of paid time off to help with projects related to outdoors education and stewardship. Gilsdorf has been part of the team since its formation in 1989. “It’s fun. You get to think. You get to create,” he said of his continued involvement. “You can’t go hardly 25 miles anywhere (in Kansas) without coming to a

project we’ve done.” Ben Postlethwait, manager of biology conservation and sustainability at Westar Energy, said the Green Team was started when a few Westar workers recognized that a Kansas community needed a hiking trail and proposed the idea to the company’s executive team. “Now, we have 60 to 80 projects a year,” he said. “We’ll have

200 hours volunteer time for this project, to raised garden beds at a school that will take eight to 10 hours.” Postlethwait said the Green Team partners with the Nature Conservancy, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, Kansas Trails Council, schools and other entities interested in outdoors education and stewardship.

For example, the Green Team partnered with Friends of the Kaw to clean up the Kansas River and build boat ramps to allow better access to the river. Using Westar machinery, the team cleared trees and pulled old tires from the river area. Kansas Wildlife, Parks and Tourism and the Army Corps of Engineers also were involved in the cleanup.

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“They’ve done 14 (boat ramps), and Westar has worked on a number of them,” Postlethwait said. “Westar is doing all the signage for them.” The Green Team also has planted thousands of trees, restored prairie by planting native grasses and forbs, partnered on environmental education publications, and built trails, wetlands, bridges and lookouts to enhance access or educational opportunities. Of Westar’s 2,400 employees, Postlethwait said, about 600 volunteer with the Green Team in a year’s time, with 30 to 35 people volunteering on a regular basis. About 3,600 hours of volunteer time is logged each year for the Green Team. “People are very generous with their time,” he said. The reason the Green Team is successful is because the process for its projects is organic and democratic, Postlethwait said. People submit ideas for projects. If they fall within the parameters of environmental education and stewardship, they are discussed at the Green Team’s quarterly meetings. Once the team decides which projects its volunteers would be interested in doing, the site is visited, plans mapped out and a work schedule determined. “We tell other companies (interested in developing Green Team-like projects) to start small,” he said. “Find a community or school need, and then do it. Get people energized, but it must start with the employees, not from the executive.” Postlethwait said the Baker Wetlands observation tower should be finished by the end of November. Future projects include clearing trees at Topeka Public Schools’ Kanza Education and Science Park and removing trees at the Farlington Fish Hatchery near Girard, where alligator snapping turtle research is being done. Contact niche editor Jan Biles at (785) 295-1292.



Westar Energy Inc. employees who volunteer with the company’s Green Team construct a kiosk near a boat ramp at Lawrence Riverfront Park, near the Kansas River in Lawrence.

Four years ago, Westar Energy Inc. was looking at ways to get its employees more involved in a company-wide giving effort. The company had conducted traditional United Way campaigns in the past, but the number of employees participating was declining. The answer: Your Gift, Your Choice, an employee-giving campaign designed to help increase the number of workers who participate and the dollars pledged to support the communities Westar serves. Your Gift, Your Choice gives employees more options to select organizations meaningful to them as they pledge donations through the payroll-deduction campaign. Westar surveys employees each year to determine which organizations will be included. To be considered as a recipient of pledges, an organization must fall within one of five categories: emergency services; children and youth; environmental; elderly; and arts and culture, plus United Way organizations. “The first year, we had 40 organizations, and this year we had 90 organizations in which employees could choose to support,” said Cynthia McCarvel, corporate community affairs manager for Westar. “Employees often pledge in the town they work and/or live. Our employee participation has grown from 40 percent in 2013 to 73 percent in 2017.” In 2013, employees pledged $417,200, and this year they exceeded $586,500. Westar Energy Foundation provides a $1-for-$1 match for employees’ pledges. With the match, this year’s total was more than $1,173,000. — THE CAPITAL-JOURNAL


Your Gift, Your Choice, an employee-giving campaign at Westar Energy, raised more than $586,500 this year. Here is a breakdown of the pledges: COMPANY-WIDE Emergency services........................................$200,595.88 Children and youths..........................................$174,520.72 Environmental ................................................. $60,466.08 Elderly................................................................ $38,322.00 Arts and culture ..................................................$2,808.00 United Way organizations ...............................$109,870.32 TOPEKA-AREA ORGANIZATIONS Children and youths..........................................$115,170.56 Emergency services...........................................$91,949.96 United Way organizations .................................$29,234.72 Elderly................................................................ $27,790.84 Environmental ..................................................$26,049.08


Westar Energy Inc.’s Green Team has partnered with Friends of the Kaw to clean up the Kansas River. Westar employees can volunteer up to eight hours of paid time off to help with projects related to outdoors education and stewardship.

GREEN TEAM PROJECTS The top five Green Team projects, as listed by Ben Postlethwait, manager of biology conservation and sustainability for Westar Energy Inc.: n Helping with setup and cleanup at the Symphony in the Flint Hills in June. The Green Team chose to volunteer with the event because it focuses on preservation of the tallgrass prairie. n Building boat ramps along the Kansas River to provide better access.

n Using recycled power poles to help construct the TreeTop Treehouse at the Kansas Children’s Discovery Center in Topeka. n Building a round teaching pavilion in Haysville for the Kansas Forest Service. Postlethwait said the pavilion has a 50-foot diameter and is tall enough inside to stand a tree upright. n Assisting with the construction of the lorikeet aviary and butterfly gardens at the Topeka Zoo.

8 | Sunday, November 19, 2017 | The Topeka Capital-Journal

Interest in volunteering at YWCA on the rise Support for mission — eliminating racism and empowering women — resonating today By Katie Moore

One afternoon last month, YWCA of Northeast Kansas volunteer Vickie Deaton connected a woman in need of a protection order to the organization’s Center for Safety and Empowerment. Volunteering for the YWCA has been “an eye-opener,” she said. Some people come in seeking basic assistance for things like food; others have arrived with a black eye. “I’m so happy we’re here to help them out,” said Deaton, who has been a volunteer for nearly two years. The YWCA relies on volunteers. As of mid-October, 316 volunteers had contributed more than 9,100 hours of service this year to the organization. “It goes across all of our programs,” said YWCA CEO Kathleen Marker. “We could not operate as a nonprofit without volunteers.” Interest in helping the organization has been on the rise, Marker said. She attributed that to increased programming awareness and support for the YWCA’s mission — eliminating racism and empowering women. Volunteers fulfill a number of roles, including administrative responsibilities and working with youth. This semester, Girls on the Run has one staff member and 74 volunteer coaches. The program helps children in grades 3 through 8 develop a positive self-image, make healthy choices and stand up to bullies. Bobbi Luttjohann began volunteering with Girls on the Run in fall 2014. The program gives the girls an anchor and, in the long run, teaches them how to be good citizens, she said. Volunteers also impart lessons about standing up for themselves and others. Luttjohann recalled an incident when one of the Girls on the


Volunteer Bobbi Luttjohann talks with some of the participants in the Girls on the Run program at Jay Shideler Elementary School. The program, coordinated by the YWCA of Northeast Kansas, helps children in grades 3 through 8 develop a positive self-image, make healthy choices and stand up to bullies.


Want to volunteer at the YWCA? Qualifications for volunteering vary depending on the program in which one serves. Anyone interested in finding out more can call (785) 233-1750 or email Run participants noticed some older students on a playground teasing some younger children. The girl went over and defended the younger children.

“What we do each time we go there really does make an impact,” Luttjohann said. Volunteers also contribute time at events and as committee members in areas such as programming, finance and resource development. This year, the organization’s advocacy committee has seen a substantial increase in volunteers, who represent a crosssection of the community working on social justice, pov-

erty and gender issues. Many committee members go on to serve on the organization’s board, which is also volunteer-led. Kaitlyn Truesdell, a board member since May, noted the significance of the YWCA’s volunteers. “Like many other organizations, without our volunteers we just simply wouldn’t be able to accomplish nearly all that we do within a year,” Trues-

dell said. “I personally believe it’s our volunteers, our mission and the connection we all share that empowers us to excel forward every day.” Marker said the YWCA is hoping to identify a volunteer coordinator who can help volunteers find the right fit within the organization and enhance the orientation process. Contact reporter Katie Moore at (785) 295-1612.

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City water department employees Mike Vannordstand and Pete Whitlock work on a home for Topeka Habitat for Humanity.


Ron Perry, who works for the city’s water department, pries lime sediment off a filter and into a semi-truck below.

Habitat: Families chosen based on three factors

Continued from 4

the homes built to completion. In addition to helping the community in general, employees get the added benefit of knowing exactly who their work is for. It’s common practice for Topeka Habitat to have the families who will move into the homes work alongside volunteers during construction. “The water department has embraced our mission, and they’ve gotten to know the families they’ll be serving through lunches and working with them,” MacMillan said. “It’s really been a wonderful experience for their end and ours.” Topeka Habitat families are chosen from a pool of applicants based on three factors: the need for affordable housing, the ability to pay an interest-free mortgage for the final product, and a willingness to partner with the organization during construction. The two houses are among six the program will finish in 2017, a number MacMillan says is an increase from years past.


For information about Topeka Habitat for Humanity, go to For information about employment opportunity at the City of Topeka, go to “We always need volunteers, which is why working with the water department has been great,” she said. “That’s how we keep our houses affordable, utilizing well over 1,000 volunteer hours a month. Our house production has seen a big jump, and a lot of that is due to our great partnerships.” Based on the positive feedback from both sides, a longstanding pipeline of volunteer support may be in the works between the water department and Topeka Habitat. “From a utilities department standpoint, we’re using this as a pilot to see what more we can do,” Sample said. “We’ve already had folks expressing interest, so it’s my hope we can extend the partnership on.”

10 | Sunday, November 19, 2017 | The Topeka Capital-Journal


Westar Energy Inc. employees Greg Berroth, left, and Phil Shaffer work on the frame of one of the scenes for Winter Wonderland, a lighted holiday display at Lake Shawnee. More than 90 Westar employees worked on this year’s display.

Westar workers help light up Winter Wonderland Annual fundraiser for TARC wouldn’t be possible without volunteers

By Jan Biles

Westar Energy Inc. employee Ron Gwaltney has long known the difference volunteers can make in a community. He saw it first-hand with his wife, Linda, who has donated her time to Ju-

nior League projects for many years. So when he took his family to see the lighted holiday scenes at Winter Wonderland 18 years ago, Gwaltney decided it was time for him to lend his skills to the annual fundraiser for TARC Inc., a nonprofit organization that pro-

vides service, support and advocacy to children, families and adults with developmental, intellectual and related disabilities. “I thought maybe they could use an engineer,” said Gwaltney, a staff engineer in substation protection and control. In mid-October, Gwaltney and

more than 30 other Westar employees from Jeffrey Energy Center, Tecumseh Energy Center, Topeka Operations Center and engineers from the general office area were helping install the lighted display for the 20th Annual Winter Wonderland at Lake Shawnee.

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The 2½-mile route of Winter Wonderland at Lake Shawnee contains 60 to 70 scenes or individual displays and more than 750,000 bulbs. The display can be seen from 6 to 10 p.m. Nov. 22 through Dec. 31. Sherry Lundry, development director at TARC, said the 21/2-mile route of Winter Wonderland contains 60 to 70 scenes or individual displays and more than 750,000 bulbs, not including the lights along the road. “I think we’re getting close to a million,” Lundry said, adding all the bulbs are checked by volunteers before the scenes are installed. In all, about 94 Westar employees worked on the lighted display. The energy company allows employees eight hours of paid time off to volunteer on community projects. “It’s a great cause, and a lot of great people are involved,” Gwaltney said. “This seemed like a good fit for me. It’s kind of be-

come a tradition.” Lundry said more than 600 volunteers are taking part in this year’s Winter Wonderland. In addition to setting up scenes, volunteers help at the gate, direct traffic, hand out programs and perform other tasks. “The number of hours that are provided by volunteers reduces the time TARC staff has to be there,” she said. “It could not be done without volunteers.” Last year’s Winter Wonderland raised $190,000, which helps fund TARC’s programs for those with disabilities, Lundry said. From 1998 to 2016, the project raised $2 million. Contact niche editor Jan Biles at (785) 295-1292.


WHAT: A 21/2-mile lighted holiday display with more than 750,000 bulbs that raises money for TARC Inc., a nonprofit organization that provides service, support and advocacy to children, families and adults with developmental, intellectual and related disabilities WHEN: 6 to 10 p.m. Nov. 22 through Dec. 31 WHERE: 3425 S.E. East Edge Road, Lake Shawnee COST: $10 per car; $20 per bus INFORMATION:


Sherry Lundry, development director at TARC Inc., checks the bulbs of one of the lighted displays that can be viewed at this year’s Winter Wonderland Nov. 22 through Dec. 31 at Lake Shawnee. The event raises money for TARC, a nonprofit organization that provides service, support and advocacy to children, families and adults with developmental, intellectual and related disabilities.

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Silverbackks volunteers Ronnie Wooten, left, and Jessi Whitehead serve a home-cooked meal to those attending a recent SilverSunday.

Five years later, Silverbackks still serving capital city Volunteers’ connection with Topeka’s needy holds strong By Samantha Egan

Special to The Capital-Journal

“Silverbackks is what happens when you get a group

of people together who don’t know the word ‘no.’” So says Silverbackks volunteer Ami Weidler-Hyten, a member of the nonprofit organization’s leadership team who has worked with Silverbackks since it formed in 2012. Seeking to fill gaps in the community, Silverbackks has grown from its well-known beginnings of founder Jude Quinn handing out cold water from his van during a particularly hot Topeka summer to an organization that enlists about

100 volunteers per week. And while Quinn, who now lives in Chicago, no longer leads the organization on a regular basis, Silverbackks’ nine programs continue to be run by its volunteers, who take its mission statement “Lead. Help. Build. Protect” to heart. “Lead” is a particularly important part of the organization’s mission, which relies on Topekans to see a need and fill it. “Folks will come to us with a need that’s not being met else-

where,” Weidler-Hyten said. “No one in leadership will tell that person no.” That was the case when Jessi Whitehead helped launch SilverSupper, a nightly meal program serving children from birth through age 18 at three Topeka community centers. “Jude and a few others were handing out water bottles at Hillcrest Community Center, and they were noticing the kids were hungry,” she said. That prompted Quinn and his wife to recruit Whitehead

and her sister to do something about it. Today, SilverSupper serves 275 meals a week. SilverSunday, a weekly program that serves home-cooked meals to the homeless and under-homed, continues to be the flagship program of the organization, serving at least 200 meals each Sunday at 408 S.W. Jackson. And while the hot meals they serve fill a vital physical need, the volunteers also are providing a human connection that many patrons lack the other six

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To learn more about Silverbackks’ various programs or sign up to volunteer, visit its website at

days of the week. “Some people have come for two years of Sundays,” Weidler-Hyten said. “We ask them about their kids. They’re going to tell us if they have a job lead, or if they have cancer, or if they just had a new grandchild. That’s a meaningful experience for all of us.” Because Silverbackks has no paid employees, most volunteers serve on top of working full time and tending to family responsibilities. Whitehead, who has five children ranging in age from 5 to 15 years, says she usually volunteers four or five hours a week, but if it’s a busy season, it’s closer to 12 hours. Despite the time commitment, Silverbackks is a priority for her. “I’m setting a good example for my kids and filling needs for people in our community,” Whitehead said. “I just make time. I have to.” Whitehead’s children often accompany her when she serves, and several of the patrons know her children’s names. It’s that kind of connection Silverbackks volunteers believe help make their efforts successful with patrons. “They’re comfortable coming to us, and they keep coming back because they know they’re welcome,” Whitehead said. Weidler-Hyten, who works full time as the executive director for programs and operations at an independent living resource center, says her work with Silverbackks has made her more effective at her job because she is more empathetic. “It has helped me and my agency do a better job in our work providing advocacy and services for folks with disabilities,” she said. Weidler-Hyten said other organizations also could learn from Silverbackks’ format, which empowers volunteers to take change into their own hands. “It would be fantastic to see the model replicated in other places,” she said. “It’s quite frankly stupidsimple.” By helping other organizations better serve their communities, Silverbackks is continuing its mission to bridge gaps. “Making connections in the community was how the whole thing really got started,” Weidler-Hyten said. “It’s what got people in the van that first time.”

Silverbackks, a grassroots volunteer organization, has spearheaded several efforts to fill community needs. Volunteers serving meals at a recent SilverSunday are, back row, from left, Les Wooten, Larry Zirkle, Andy Easum and Laura McGowan; front row, from left, are Amber Easum, Sabrina Womack, Ronnie Wooten, Tiffani Bryant, Jessi Whitehead and Christian Greeve.

Silverbackks volunteers Laura McGowan and Christian Greeve help serve the meal at a recent SilverSunday. Each Sunday, the grassroots organization prepares and serves a home-cooked meal to at least 200 people.

In addition to serving home-cooked meals to the homeless and underhomed, Silverbackks volunteers also provide a human connection many patrons lack.

16 | Sunday, November 19, 2017 | The Topeka Capital-Journal

Advisors Excel employees ‘rock the block’ Community engagement opportunities among first questions asked by prospective employees By Kim Gronniger

Special to The Capital-Journal

Two years ago, Highland Park High School and Eisenhower Middle School students often had to navigate sidewalks strewn with trash, tree limbs and even tires. But a fortuitous alliance among Advisors Excel, Topeka Public Schools, the City of Topeka’s Department of Neighborhood Relations and the Topeka Police Department has since resulted in twice-a-month maintenance stints to ensure kids have safe passage. The first Rock the Block event took place at Highland Park High School in 2015, drawing Advisors Excel employees, high school students and neighbors to spruce up a city block. The event was so successful Advisors Excel opted to continue its participation with the community partners. Clad in AE Charitable Giving T-shirts, eight employees volunteer for three-hour stints to clean curbs, cut brush, mow neighborhood lawns and pick up trash and leaves. The City of Topeka provides gloves and tools. “The neighbors love it when we show up and often come out to converse with us and help the effort,” said Lindsay Freeman, director of employee initiatives. “It’s an opportunity for us to rally the community and make a difference while demonstrating a level of respect and care for them.” Freeman says it’s also gratifying when motorists drive by and honk and wave in support of what employees and neighborhood volunteers are accomplishing. Monique Glaude, division director of the Department of Neighborhood Relations, says Rock the Block cleans the rights of way for 21 neighborhood associations. “You never know how a little bit of your time can have such an impact,” said Glaude, prais-


Eight Advisors Excel employees volunteer for three-hour stints to clean curbs, cut brush, mow neighborhood lawns and pick up trash and leaves as part of the Rock the Block initative. From left are Aaron Rethman, Ashley Kilmartin, Brett Broxterman, Melinda Neuman, Lindsay Jackson, Jessica McCartney, Michelle Funk and Phil Blosser. ing the work of Rock the Block volunteers for allowing people “to walk in a safer, cleaner environment.” A Topeka police officer attends each cleanup session, his or her parked vehicle signaling to motorists to slow down to ensure that employees and volunteers are safe as they remove obstructions, pull weeds and clear gutters. Rock the Block is one of many Advisors Excel-sponsored volunteer activities. “We work outside in the

spring and fall, and it’s often a comfortable time of year to be outdoors,” Freeman said. “Employees get a great deal of satisfaction from seeing the dramatic difference that can be made, and that’s what we aim for with everything we do at Advisors Excel.” As a complement to their varied work roles in providing high-level marketing support to financial advisers across the country, community engagement is an integral component of Advisors Excel’s culture.

Given that about two-thirds of the company’s employees are millennials, Freeman notes volunteerism is often one of the first things prospective employees ask recruiters about when considering joining the team. “People coming on board have to have caring and giving in their hearts, because we believe that quality will make them a better, more well-rounded employee,” Freeman said. “We live here, and we raise our families

here. Allowing paid time off for our employees to provide manpower for a good cause has a positive impact on Topeka and a positive impact on our workforce.” Cody Foster, one of three Advisors Excel founders, agreed: “As a service-based company, our employees offer a better experience when they are operating out of a sense of gratitude, and when you’re able to go serve others in need, it is a great place for gratitude to start.”

The Topeka Capital-Journal | Sunday, November 19, 2017 | 17

Unsung volunteers: Neighbors helping neighbors Caring for others reflected in acts of kindness, big and small By Phil Anderson

Volunteer opportunities abound in the Topeka area, and folks don’t necessarily need to go through an organization to help a neighbor in need. All they need to do is look around and take action. In the Montara community just south of Topeka, Tonya Tregellas wanted to do something to help her neighbors. Four years ago, she got the ball rolling. Tregellas began organizing efforts to provide food for Montara residents to have Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners in their homes. She extended that to rounding up donations to adopt families for the Christmas season, making sure her neighbors had gifts during the holiday season. Over the past couple of years, the mission has grown larger. A clothes closet, with donations from local garage sales, has provided items for families in the Montara community. In recent months, Tregellas, who is an accounts receivable representative at The Topeka Capital-Journal, has handed off some of the organizational duties to her sister, Brandi Brown. Others in the Montara community have jumped on board, contributing their time and resources to help with various events. A committee now helps oversee many of the efforts, including a fall festival with children’s activities. The work — done on a volunteer basis at the grass-roots level — is having a positive impact in Montara, the sisters said. Some of the work that social service agencies provide in Topeka is being delivered to residents of the Montara community through the volunteers’ efforts. “It’s huge, because out in Montara, they don’t have a bus route, and you have community members that don’t have a vehicle,” Brown said. “To bring these services to them really helps, because some of them can’t get to the organizations in town.” Tregellas and Brown, along

with other committee members, accept donations from friends, family members and co-workers — and will dig into their own pockets to make up for any funding shortfalls. “It’s actually quite amazing to see other members of the Montara community donate to help,” Brown said. “We also have people who help who live outside of the Montara community.” In Wamego, a Pottawatomie County town of 4,400 people about 40 miles west of Topeka, Carroll Carley has been helping his neighbors for the better part of 50 years with no fanfare. “I was raised in a small town — Louisville — about 3 miles north of Wamego,” said Carley, 68. “When I grew up, there was a couple hundred people in town. Most people just helped neighbors out. That was a way of life. It’s what we did. It’s the way we were brought up.” Carley never forgot those lessons, which were instilled in him at a young age by his father, a carpenter and mason who would help neighbors out with projects around their homes, and his mother, who with another woman would help hang wallpaper in people’s homes — always at no charge. To this day, Carley has helped his neighbors whenever he sees a need. On snowy days, he climbs aboard his John Deere tractor, which has a blade and shovel, to clear neighbors’ driveways. He and his wife, Cynthia, keep a close eye on a widow in her 80s who lives nearby. But Carley said he also helps his younger neighbors, particularly those who have to rush off to work on winter mornings without time to clear their driveways and sidewalks. He also helps neighbors with ideas on projects around their houses and will loan out his tools. His only request that they are returned in good shape. Contact staff writer Phil Anderson at (785) 295-1195.


For several years, sisters Tonya Tregellas, left, and Brandi Brown have organized efforts to provide Thanksgiving meals, Christmas gifts and clothing to residents in need in the Montara community. Others in the community have jumped on board, contributing their time and resources to help with various events. Tregellas works at The Topeka Capital-Journal as an accounts receivable representative.

Carroll Carley has been helping his neighbors in Wamego for the better part of 50 years with no fanfare. When it snows, he’s out on his John Deere tractor clearing neighbors’ driveways. He also helps neighbors with ideas on projects around their houses and loans out his tools, with the only request being that they are returned in good shape.

18 | Sunday, November 19, 2017 | The Topeka Capital-Journal

Faith communities lend aid to less-fortunate


Volunteer Molly Wisman, a member of Temple Beth Sholom, works at the front desk at the Kansas Children’s Discovery Center. Wisman also volunteers at a number of other Topeka organizations, including Meals on Wheels of Eastern Kansas Inc., Topeka Symphony Orchestra, United Way of Greater Topeka and the Christmas Bureau.

Rhoda Wisman, a member of Temple Beth Sholom, has volunteered with KTWU-TV for about four years and Midland Care’s Findables resale store for about eight years.

Many service agencies say they wouldn’t exist without assistance from churches By Phil Anderson

Congregations play a major role in filling volunteer needs in the Topeka community, with many faith groups encouraging members to roll up their sleeves and assist at social service agencies and nonprofit organizations. Among agencies that receive heavy support from local congregations are Doorstep Inc., Let’s Help, The Salvation Army and Topeka Rescue Mission. But many other organizations also find help from people whose faith motivates them to make a positive difference in Topeka. Lisa Cain, executive director of Doorstep Inc., said her organization couldn’t survive without the help of volunteers, many of whom come from the 55 interfaith congregations that support


We have about 70 volunteers who come every week and help us in our clothing room, food room, front desk, the Dovetail Shoppe. There are many different roles they fill that we simply could not do by ourselves.” LISA CAIN, executive director of Doorstep Inc.

the emergency-services agency. “We would not be open without our volunteers,” Cain said. “We’re a very small staff, so it’s the volunteers that help us day to day, keeping this place open and functioning.” Like other Topeka organizations that provide services to the needy, Doorstep relies on congregations that sign up to help on a particular day each month. Some of the volunteers, particularly those who are newly retired, go the extra mile and help

several days a week. “They hear about Doorstep from their congregation,” Cain said. “We have about 70 volunteers who come every week and help us in our clothing room, food room, front desk, the Dovetail Shoppe. There are many different roles they fill that we simply could not do by ourselves.” Rita Lawrence, a member of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, said she was glad her congregation encouraged her to

volunteer at Doorstep. “It’s just a wonderful opportunity to give back to your community and give back to God,” Lawrence said. “I enjoy all my time there. It’s also a wonderful opportunity to meet some really neat people.” Volunteers at Topeka Rescue Mission come from both large and small congregations. Many churches send groups to help serve meals or provide chapel services in the evenings. Kim Turley, director of events and volunteer services for Topeka Rescue Mission, said volunteers are key to the mission being able to offer its many services, which include providing meals and shelter to the homeless. “They’re giving back to the community,” Turley said. “They’re walking alongside us as we’re helping the community,

and that’s really important to us.” Imam Omar Hazim, of the Islamic Center of Topeka, said members of the local mosque help such support organizations as Let’s Help, Doorstep and Topeka Rescue Mission. Each fall, the Islamic center provides about 200 turkeys and all the trimmings for Thanksgiving meals for local families. The food is distributed on a Saturday before Thanksgiving at Let’s Help, a nonprofit organization that strives to break the cycle of poverty. “We usually have 10 to 15 of our members down there for that,” Hazim said. “Spiritually, it’s a reward for us, and it gives us great satisfaction that we can do something for people in our community.” Members of Temple Beth Sholom, Topeka’s Jewish congrega-

The Topeka Capital-Journal | Sunday, November 19, 2017 | 19

Rita Lawrence, a member of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, volunteers at Doorstep Inc. several times a week, often helping in the clothing room. “It’s just a wonderful opportunity to give back to your community and give back to God,” said Lawrence. tion, said their faith motivates them to volunteer in the community. Rhoda Wisman, a member of Temple Beth Sholom, said she has volunteered with two organizations — KTWU-TV for about four years and Midland Care’s Findables resale store for about eight years. At KTWU, she volunteers primarily when the PBS station is “gearing up” for its “Lights! Camera! Auction!” on-air fundraiser. At Findables, she works the cash register, helps bring in donations and straightens up the store for a few hours every Friday afternoon. She said her volunteer work is an extension of her Jewish faith and her local congregation. “Temple Beth Sholom encourages

its congregants to try and make a difference in the larger community in which they live and work,” she said. Molly Wisman, also a member of Temple Beth Sholom, says when people ask her what she does, she tells them she is a “professional volunteer.” She gives of her time to a variety of organizations, including the Kansas Children’s Discovery Center, Meals on Wheels of Eastern Kansas Inc., Topeka Symphony Orchestra, United Way of Greater Topeka and the Christmas Bureau. “Judaism,” she said, “encourages us to volunteer and help in the community by doing good deeds.” Contact staff writer Phil Anderson at (785) 295-1195.

Midland Care’s Findables resale store depends on volunteers many from Topeka’s faith community - for its operation.

20 | Sunday, November 19, 2017 | The Topeka Capital-Journal

Dollars for Hours program encourages volunteerism Security Benefit employees give to community on personal time while company contributes financially By Rick Peterson Jr.

Security Benefit not only encourages its employees to actively volunteer in the community, but the corporation also developed a program that makes volunteer work even more rewarding. With its Dollars for Hours program, Security Benefit matches the time employees spend volunteering in the community with a dollar match to an approved, employee-chosen nonprofit organization. Security Benefit says the program is one of the first of its kind in Topeka. “The Dollars for Hours program is another opportunity for our caring employees to turn their time into money in support of one or more approved nonprofit organizations of their choice,” said Anne Trebino, Security Benefit’s senior vice president of human resources. “This encourages and rewards volunteerism. Both our employees and the organizations they select win with this unique program.” The monetary donation made by the company is tied to a sliding scale based on the number of personal volunteer hours contributed by the employee to the selected organization. “Literally, we have a system where we click on a button and we can enter our volunteer hours throughout the year,” said Jenifer Purvis, vice president of human resources at Security Benefit. “Whether you’re coaching with a Little League team or working at your church in some capacity or working with scouting — basically, any kind of volunteer activity that you do is eligible. “At the end of the year, you can get an award based on the total hours you put in. It’s either $100, $200 or $300, depending on the number of hours. At the end of the year, you’re given a document that says you are eligible to enter (the amount earned) to a 501(c)


From left, Security Benefit employees Darian Grimmett, Amy Chandler, Carey Likens, Brenda Kramer and Lorrie Banister complete some outdoor work at the Kansas Children’s Discovery Center. Through its Dollars for Hours program, Security Benefit matches the time employees spend volunteering in the community with a dollar match to a qualified, employee-chosen nonprofit organization. (3) of your choice.” Purvis said she volunteers her time by running sound and light at her church. She also works with Big Brothers Big Sisters and makes cuddle blankets each year during the Nancy Perry Day of Caring for United Way of Greater Topeka. She takes advantage of the Dollars for Hours program by making donations to Helping Hands Humane Society. “I’m a big believer in adopting pets that don’t have a home,” she said. Purvis said Security Benefit employees generally log from 9,000 to 10,000 volunteer hours per year. “We don’t seem to have a lot

of difficulty here getting people out in the community and volunteering,” she said. “We’ve done surveys before to see where people are contributing in the community, and it varies all over the place. “I don’t know of anyone else that really has a program like this. It’s something that seems to be unique to Security Benefit. … We introduce this program to every new person that comes in the door here, so that they’re aware that we appreciate the time they spend in the community and we’re willing to reward them for that time.” Contact sports writer Rick Peterson Jr. at (785) 295-1290.


From left, Security Benefit employees Kelsey Blanchette, Tami Eustice and Chelsea Carpenter work on a volunteer project for Midland Care. Through its Dollars for Hours program, Security Benefit matches the time employees spend volunteering in the community with a dollar match to a qualified, employeechosen nonprofit organization.

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Young professionals look for ways to give back By Angela Deines

Giving back to the community is so important to the members of Forge that they have made volunteerism one of the four key pillars of the organization, which promotes culture, networking and activities that appeal to Topeka’s young professionals. “Our mission is to attract young talent to the Topeka area,” said Gabe O’Shea, executive director of Forge. “Giving back, that’s something that someone (looking to relocate) is passionate about, and it’s key when someone looks to a city. They want opportunities to give back to the less fortunate but also to good causes.” O’Shea said “engagement is key” for many young professionals looking for volunteer opportunities — usually more important than writing a check to a favorite cause. “It’s about giving back time,” he said. “That’s actually our most precious resource. When we actually get engaged in giving back time, it means a lot more than just giving money to something.” Angel Romero, vice president of resource development at the United Way of Greater Topeka and coordinator of Forge’s volunteer efforts, said there are “so many good things going on in Topeka and so many things that need support.” “We thought, ‘Why don’t we mobilize the folks that we have and get people connected to opportunities out there?’” he said. “We know that people at this age are really trying to get involved, and they’re trying to get out into the community.” Forge volunteers work at two major events each year — Trickor-Treat on the Trail at Pine Ridge Prep preschool at Halloween and an Easter egg hunt at the Topeka Rescue Mission. Forge volunteers also serve dinner at the Topeka Rescue Mission every fourth Wednesday of the month and help with smaller events as needed. Romero said it sometimes can be tricky to decide which events or causes to get involved in, because the needs in Topeka are plenty. “A lot of times, we look at things that we think our mem-


Melissa Wellman, right, a Forge volunteer, helps pass out candy and books at the Trick-or-Treat on the Trail on Oct. 30 at Pine Ridge Prep preschool, one of two major events for which Forge provides volunteers during the year.


We know that people at this age are really trying to get involved, and they’re trying to get out into the community.”

ANGEL ROMERO, vice president of resource development at the United Way of Greater Topeka and coordinator of Forge’s volunteer efforts


Angel Romero, left, vice president of resource development for the United Way of Greater Topeka and coordinator of Forge’s volunteer initiatives, and Luke Yoder, a Forge volunteer, help pass out candy at the Trick-or-Treat on the Trail on Oct. 30 at Pine Ridge Prep preschool.

bers will be interested in and what are some of the organizations that want to get out to a younger demographic,” he said. “We also look at things that are out of the ordinary, or things people may have not thought about doing before.” Melissa Wellman, a member of Forge who works at Diversified Crop Insurance, said before she moved from the Ozawkie-Meriden area to Topeka and joined Fast Forward, the predecessor to Forge, she didn’t understand how significant the needs are in the

capital city. “When I started participating in events like this, I started realizing there is a huge need,” Wellman said whild handing out candy and books at the Trick-orTreat on the Trail. “It is so important that we work together and strengthen and bring to light where that need is. I think the one thing we can do is to at least create visibility.” Contact reporter Angela Deines at (785) 295-1143 or @AngelaDeines on Twitter.

22 | Sunday, November 19, 2017 | The Topeka Capital-Journal

Blue Cross Blue Shield workers help during disasters Partnership with Red Cross enables training, emergency assistance By Allison Kite

When disaster strikes, a team of 30 Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas employees may be called up by the American Red Cross to serve victims across the state. The health insurer and the international charity have a partnership that brings disaster preparedness training to the company and allows the 30-employee team to take time away from work to volunteer. Several employees traveled to Hutchinson earlier this year to help with relief efforts following wildfires that burned through hundreds of thousands of acres of grass and farmland. The program, overseen by Jenalea Randall, a community relations specialist at Blue Cross and Blue Shield, began in 2013. Randall said the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas Foundation provides grants to the Red Cross. The company also donates clothing. “It allows us to engage in the community, to help fellow Kansans following probably the worst day of their lives, but it also helps the Red Cross spread their message,” she said. Jane Blocher, executive director of the Kansas Capital Area Chapter of the American Red Cross, said partnerships between Red Cross organizations and large corporations like Blue Cross and Blue Shield aren’t common. She believes it’s the “highest level of endorsement” the organization can receive from a company. “By them offering up to us 30 employees who are willing to invest their work time in the required trainings that they need to represent our organization in times of disaster — that is an incredible gift to us,” Blocher said. “Most corporations simply don’t have the time available for their employees to do that.” Randall said team members are paid and don’t have to use up

their vacation days to participate in the program. Jan Zillinger, a senior systems administrator and 31-year Blue Cross and Blue Shield veteran, serves on the 30-member volunteer team and traveled to Hutchinson to assist in wildfire relief. “When you hear about the disasters, the wildfires, the tornadoes, you feel so helpless,” Zillinger said, “and it’s one thing to be able to give money, but it’s another thing to be able to actually physically be on location.” Randall said she went to Corning in 2013 through the Red Cross program to help with tornado relief. A mother cried when Randall offered her and her children clothing donated through the Red Cross. “For so many people that have lost everything that they own in a fire, to have that clothing that’s in their size, that’s clean, that’s brand new — for them to be able to put that on, that’s huge,” Blocher said. The Blue Cross and Blue Shield team also assists with the Pillowcase Project, a Red Cross initiative that teaches children disaster preparedness skills, such as filling a pillowcase with emergency necessities and preparing an evacuation plan. Volunteers also have gone door-to-door in Topeka to install smoke detectors in homes. “Since that program rolled out two years ago, we have 268 lives that are confirmed being saved due to a smoke alarm that a Red Cross volunteer recently installed,” Blocher said. Members of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield team spend about two workdays getting trained, while other Red Cross volunteers working through the training in their spare time may take longer. “At the end of two days,” Blocher said, “they really felt like they were armed and ready to roll.” Contact reporter Allison Kite at (785) 295-1285.


Jim Smallback, a Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas retiree, and Jan Zillinger, senior systems administrator at the company, serve lunch from an American Red Cross van in March in Hutchinson, where they engaged in relief efforts following wildfires in the area. Through a partnership with the Red Cross, Blue Cross and Blue Shield employees can take time away from work to volunteer for disaster relief efforts.


Jenalea Randall, community relations specialist at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas, oversees the company’s partnership with the American Red Cross. The partnership brings disaster preparedness training to the company and allows its 30-employee team to take time away from work to volunteer for disaster relief efforts.

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Topekans’ initiatives help those facing serious illnesses Man runs for cancer victims, while family eases burden for patient, loved ones By Shanna Sloyer

Special to The Capital-Journal

On a warm October afternoon, the colorful silicone bracelets on Topeka native Steve Sodergren’s wrists glow in the Kansas sunlight as he jogs down the road. Each bracelet bears the name or cause of someone who has survived or lost their battle with cancer. “It became a way to let people know someone is thinking about them,” said Sodergren, founder of Running4, which to date has raised $19,000 to fund cancer research. An avid runner, Sodergren began training for and running marathons in 2004, with the goal of competing in all 50 states. As he was poised to run his 33rd marathon in 2014, Sodergren had an epiphany that changed everything. “It dawned on me how many people I knew who had battled cancer,” he said. “I needed to give this some purpose. If there was any way that I could lift somebody or let them know someone was thinking about them, that’s what I wanted to do.” Running4 was born out of the inspiration Sodergren found in the fighting spirits of those who had been affected by the disease. At the time, Topeka teenager Morgan Kottman was in the final days of losing her battle with a highly aggressive brain tumor. Sodergren’s daughter was close in age to Kottman and attended the same school. He coached Kottman in youth athletics, and her story deeply affected him. He partnered with St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, which links directly to the Running4 Facebook page. Sodergren toured St. Jude’s in December. “It helped me to see where the money is going,” he said. Running4 became even more personal for Sodergren when his mother, Myra, was diagnosed with a brain tumor nine months after he started Running4. She battled cancer for 14 months and died in July. “It really has become a way to honor my mom,” said Sodergren. “Until cancer is defeated, I’m just going to keep going. Someday if


Topeka native Steve Sodergren, founder of Running4, has raised $19,000 to fund cancer research through his running efforts. Sodergren began training for and running marathons in 2004, with the goal of competing in all 50 states.


Eric and Shannon Connell with their children, Kayleigh, Emberly and Bryson, deliver bags of personal hygiene products and other essentials to patients and their families who are admitted to Stormont Vail Hospital unexpectedly. The Connells launched Bryson’s Blessings in 2015 after Bryson was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia and his mother spent days by his side in an intensive care unit. I have to walk, I will. I’ll take it a step at a time.” Sodergren has run an estimated 5,000 miles since he began Running4, including completing races

in Hawaii and Alaska. He is on his 44th marathon and plans to reach his goal of running in all 50 states in 2019, when he competes in the New York City marathon. His

future goal is to run races on all seven continents. Sodergren pays travel expenses and entry fees himself to ensure that all donations go directly to St. Jude’s. One of Sodergren’s youngest honorees is Bryson Connell, who was only 2 years old when he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in 2014. When Bryson was first diagnosed, he spent three days in an intensive care unit, and his mother Shannon Connell was beside him every minute. Parents and visitors aren’t allowed to use patient restrooms in an ICU unit, and shower facilities are unavailable. Connell had come to the hospital without extra clothes or toiletries. After Bryson was moved to a regular patient room, a nurse brought Connell a green burlap bag. Inside, she found shampoo, conditioner, a washcloth and a toothbrush. “I can still tell you how it smelled,” she said. “That’s how


n Running4: For information and to make a donation, visit running4. n Bryson’s Blessings: For information about the organization and bowling tournament or to donate auction items or supplies, visit Bryson’s Battle at impactful it was. It was a really easy thing to do, but it had such a big impact, and it gave me a break.” Months later, Connell and her husband, Eric, launched Bryson’s Blessings, an initiative that collects and distributes personal hygiene products and other essentials to patients who are admitted to the hospital unexpectedly and their families. The first round of 30 bags was delivered in 2015 to the pediatric floor at Stormont Vail Hospital and included the Bible verse Isaiah 41:10, which begins, “So do not fear, for I am with you.” Several weeks later, Connell received a thanks-filled Facebook message from a woman whose daughter had been life-flighted to Stormont Vail. She had left with only the clothes on her back and had been a recipient of a Bryson’s Blessings bag. Since those first bags, Bryson’s Blessings has gone on to touch the lives of many more families in the community. “The nurses welcome us like we’re bringing them millions of dollars,” Connell said. Each bag contains toiletry items, washcloths, a towel and snacks. Recently, they have begun putting together bags that include puzzles, coloring books, crayons and Play Doh and can be distributed to a sick child or sibling. Funds for Bryson’s Blessings are raised largely through a bowling tournament and silent auction in February at the Gage Bowl. Private monetary donations are welcome, as well as travel-sized toiletries, bags, washcloths, towels, word searches and puzzles, books, lotions and snacks. Groups interested in helping assemble bags for distribution also are needed. Shanna Sloyer is a freelance writer from Topeka. You can reach her at ssloyer@

24 | Sunday, November 19, 2017 | The Topeka Capital-Journal

Power Players