Employees go ‘above and beyond’ to make a difference for Wisconsin Special Olympics


special oylmpics.Wisconsin Special Olympics last month honored Community First Credit Union as its Organization of the Year for going above and beyond to make a difference for Special Olympians.

Many of Community First’s 550+ employees have been part of its long-standing Polar Plunge fundraisers that annually support over 9,300 Special Olympics athletes in Wisconsin. Two decades ago, Community First stepped up and provided a team of volunteer tellers who have continued to bring their cash handling expertise to Polar Plunge sites every year and the partnership has grown ever since.
 

Source of employee pride

The award announced at a May 22 Wisconsin Special Olympics leadership conference is exceptionally meaningful, and a major source of pride, for dozens of CFCU employees who have been willing to be ‘Freezin’ for a Reason’, spurred on by generous member-owners.
 
While COVID-19 changed the 2021 fundraisers to a sledding hill ‘plunge’ instead, Community First employees and members rose to the occasion. Together, they raised more than $30,000 beyond CFCU’s sponsorship contribution. The credit union’s Polar Plunge committee embraced the pandemic challenge and rallied to make 2021 one of its most successful years yet.
 
Employees contributed by: baking or buying desserts for a home office bake sale, donating to a day-off raffle, donating items or buying tickets for raffle baskets, participating in a bowling fundraiser, creating a launch video and marketing promotional materials, encouraging members to purchase icons and offering to serve as plunge site volunteers. Icons are sold for a donation of at least $1 but members often contribute much more, including one business that brought in a $500 donation!
 


February 2021 and Sarah Graper,
Wisconsin Special Olympics


 

"Community First Credit Union has always gone above and beyond, not just being a presenting sponsor for two of our Polar Plunges (Green Bay/Ariens Hill and Wild Rose/Nordic Mountain), but also providing leadership, ideas and volunteers at the event,” said Sarah Graper, Wisconsin Special Olympics Director of Development/Special Events. Donations fund sporting events throughout the year where Special Olympians compete for free, receive food and have access to health checkups, foot care and dental care while keeping them connected, active and engaged.

 
Waupaca branch Teller Michelle Vujaklya shared her secret to selling $1,207 worth of icons: “Just starting a conversation with a member and getting them to laugh; our members have been very generous.”

Kudos also to credit union leaders for inspiring employees to embrace a great cause and have fun doing it. A handful of branch managers even offered to endure an Ice Bucket Challenge that helped push fundraising on the final day past $30,000!
 

‘Warms my heart’

“I’m honored to work for such a wonderful company that really does put the community first,” says Waupaca Receptionist Nicole Lannyk, whose adult autistic son had a stroke at birth. “Seeing how my co-workers step up time and time again when a need is presented warms my heart.”
 
Nicole knows “first-hand just how important the camaraderie and inclusion of the Special Olympics family really can be. It gives them a sense of belonging, accomplishment and physical activity. Due to financial reasons, many athletes would not be able to participate without the support of Community First. They say it takes a village to raise a child and it takes Community First to help make that happen, especially those with special needs.”
 
Employees did not need a personal connection to Special Olympics to get actively involved.
 
“Plunging for the first-time was exhilarating,” said Member Contact Lending Specialist Mike Schmoll, who has convinced others to join him on several occasions. “Special Olympics makes it such a fun atmosphere and it’s such a great cause.”
 

Making a difference

“This amazing acknowledgement makes me proud and grateful to be a part of such a special organization,” says Kimberly Branch Manager Katie Gerhartz, whose disabled nephew has taught their family much about unconditional love. It’s a business approach and culture that illustrates that “we are here to assist our members and we believe in and live for our community. There are so many kiddos, teens and adults with special needs in our community that flourish and thrive with the support and assistance they receive from Special Olympics. It truly makes a difference!”
 
“The award recognition is so awesome – being able to participate in Special Olympics is so important for the mental and physical well-being of the athletes,” says Member Contact Service Specialist Lisa Romenesko, whose special needs sister-in-law passed away in 2020 due to COVID, leaving two adult sons who love Special Olympics swimming and bocce ball competitions. Lisa’s husband Joe has become guardian of one nephew, who was “so excited” to compete in swimming events again in late spring after events were cancelled the past year.
 
In accepting the award, Community First’s Amanda Secor called the honor “incredibly humbling. We support Special Olympics because it matters to the community, it matters to our members and to our employees. The Polar Plunge means a lot of different things to every person who plunges, volunteers or gives.
 
“The important thing is that through the Polar Plunge, we come together – all of our employees and our members to raise money and to feel really good about doing it. We come together because we know your athletes need us. We come together because we need your athletes. And, we come together because that’s what a community does.”
 

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