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United Way celebrates partners, volunteers

Stephanie Wanous, tess brown, united way of steele county, award
Stephanie Wanous, left, received the United Way of Steele County Above and Beyond Award last week from board member Tess Brown. Wanous took the lead on an initiative to bring a Born Learning Trail to Lincoln Elementary School. Staff photo by Joni Hubred
Joni Hubred, News Editor

United Way of Steele County (UWSC) hosted a celebration of partnerships and volunteers Thursday, recognizing those who support their mission “to change lives by mobilizing and optimizing the caring power of our community.”

“These are the people who really make our community a wonderful place to be, and it supports the people who need our help,” board chair Todd Trout said.

He announced the 2023 fundraising campaign, led by the Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism, raised $785,598 the second highest total ever.

“Our two organizations aligned so well,” Chamber president Brad Meier said. “Really, the whole mission, if you boil it down, is to help Owatonna thrive as a community, Steele County to thrive as a county. We have such a similar focus to what we do as an organization.”

Board member Tess Brown presented the UWSC’s second Above and Beyond Award to Stephanie Wanous. Presented in its first year to agency president Annette Duncan, the award honors “a community member who exceeds what is required or expected.”

Wanous chairs UWSC’s Strategic Impact Committee and led an initiative to bring a Born Learning Trail to Owatonna.

Installed last year at Lincoln Elementary School, the trail includes interactive signs that lead families through engaging learning activities. As an example, Brown said, there’s a hopscotch board with instructions for games in Spanish and English.

Wanous "truly went above and beyond to make this initiative a reality” and is now working on an indoor Born Learning Trail and expanding the program in Ellendale, Hope, and Medford.

The Live United Partner Award went to South Central Human Relations Center in Owatonna. Presenter and board member Ryan Gillespie said the Center has been a “longtime partner” with its Sage Enrichment Center, coping skills training for middle school teachers and Big Brothers Big Sisters participants, and teen mental health initiatives.

Board member Brian Coleman presented the Small Business Award to Climate By Design International (CDI), saying owners Tom and Sue Peterson are always “there to help develop solutions that provide opportunities for all.”

CDI has worked with Habitat for Humanity on homebuilding project, provided financial support of multiple charities, helped small businesses during COVID, and was the first employer to sign on with the Youth Skills Training program, which provides work experiences for students ages 16 and older. Supply Chain Manager Steve Alvarado accepted the award for the Petersons.

“This is a unique environment that Tom and Sue have created. It’s embodied by their giving,” he said, adding they emphasize “servant leadership, from the top down.”

Brown also presented the Live United Community Award, which went to Debbie Ensley–who was described by nominators as “fiercely caring for her community” and “a spitfire in the best way.” A volunteer with many organizations, she is heavily involved with Women United, a group that focuses on children’s health and welfare.  

Ensley was instrumental in bringing the Dolly Parton Imagination Library program to Steele County; it sends over 1,100 books each month to local children. She chairs a Power of the Purse fundraiser that covers mailing costs for the books.

“Debbie is one of those women who prefers to work behind the scenes,” Brown said.

UWSC Donor Development Coordinator Kellen Hinrichsen announced that Jeff Fetters, chairman of Federated Insurance Companies, became a member of the UWSC’s Tocqueville Society in 2023. Donors in that group contributed at least $10,000 to the nonprofit.

Duncan said UWSC has created action teams “around our community’s largest crises.” They include affordable housing, child care, teen mental health, and racial divisions. In particular, she talked about a pilot program to support caregivers who need time off.

“If we are successful, we will be able to hand over a turnkey program to every community in Minnesota… that’s something we can all be proud of,” she said.

Also announced during the event, Owatonna Public Schools will serve as the 2024 fundraising campaign leader. Superintendent Jeff Elstad said United Way has been a longtime partner for the district to help “all of our families and students thrive in our community.”

The partnership has included early childhood transportation, helping immigrants obtain their driver’s licenses, and providing a temporary home for Wee Pals Child Care at the Owatonna Education Center, while the City of Owatonna works on Merrill Hall.

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