Reflection for August 2015

Our reflection this newsletter is written by Becky Long, the Gathering’s Program and Volunteer Manager. August 1 was Becky’s last day with us; she is moving on to work in the housing field. We will miss her terribly. ~ Ginny Schrag, Executive Director

Staff members Angela, Becky, and Marianne at the Gathering’s first ever major donor event

Staff members Angela, Becky, and Marianne at the Gathering’s first ever major donor event

I remember my first staff meeting with the Gathering vividly. The staff team felt like a curious little world that I wanted to be a part of—but was also kind of intimidated by. It was hard to imagine back then how quickly I’d get swept up into that energy, humor, compassion and dynamic fast-paced environment that kept and still keeps the Gathering spinning.

I remember another staff meeting on the south side nearly a year later. We had had a few very busy weeks with some expected and unexpected challenges, but everyone managed and continued the spin. At this particular meeting, we slowed down. Ginny took a moment to tell the staff how thankful she was for their work. I hadn’t been around very long, but I remember in that moment feeling proud and joyful. I remember looking around and agreeing wholeheartedly. This was an exceptional team. I knew that I belonged to this team and could learn from them, and learn I did.

Jim taught me that tough love and forming relationships can go a long way. Ed taught me the beauty that comes with devoting yourself to a cause. Moses taught me that there’s always a way to make it work. Dennis taught me, no matter how hard things get, you can still hope for the million dollars. Marianne taught me how to seamlessly integrate love, laughter and efficiency into the workplace and Ginny taught me the importance of being a patient, humble and incredibly dedicated leader.

I remember when Bob, Angela, and Rosy were added to the pack. Sitting at staff meetings, it was weird to not feel like the “new kid” anymore, but they never really felt like new kids either. Angela deeply cared about the guests, volunteers, staff and the Breakfast Program from day one. And Bob’s quips about corn dogs helped maintain the joyful attitude the Gathering is famous for. And who could forget Rosy? Together with Angela, they form a dream team with a passion that not only keeps the Gathering spinning, but pumps the Breakfast Program up to warp speed with a contagious, fun liveliness that can’t stop, won’t stop, and shouldn’t stop.

I guess it’s strange, but leaving this meal program, my reflections don’t bring me back to tables of food and guests. The tables that stick out in my mind are the office tables. Where the people I had grown to care for, learn from and belong to came together—where plans, ideas, concerns, lists, laughter and happiness were shared. The table that I come back to in my reflections doesn’t bring people together for a physical meal, but one of purpose, fulfillment, fellowship and spiritual nourishment.

I know when I leave, the Gathering will keep on spinning. New sources of energy will come and go and keep it alive. I am sad to leave what has felt like family for three years, but I know there will always be a place for me at the table.

Goodbye Dennis and Jim

Jim and Dennis at the Gathering’s Brewer’s Outing in 2007

Jim and Dennis at the Gathering’s Brewer’s Outing in 2007

After 14 and 15 years respectively, Dennis Stokhaug and Jim Ardis are leaving their shared position as Operations Managers for the Gathering. Jim will stay on as Dinner Coordinator, and both have offered to train the new person when hired. It’s difficult wrapping one’s brain around the thought of their impending departures.

In 2000, Jim Ardis began working with the Gathering as our full time Operations Manager, responsible for the purchase, storage and transport of food, and oversight of equipment and facility maintenance and repairs at all Gathering Sites. A year later, Dennis Stokhaug took on that role while Jim concentrated on the Dinner Program. And five years after that, they began sharing the Operations Manager duties.

It’s a tough job: early hours, lots of driving, keeping your cool, schmoozing with donors of food and supplies, making sense out of inventory lists, locating the best deal on an item, responding to a multitude of “bosses”, heavy lifting, and stairs, stairs, stairs!

What could possibly keep each of them committed to this work for so many years?

Jim says:

“I enjoyed over the years being with the people tasked with the duties of distributing goods to the people in our society who have the most pressing needs. Their dedication was, in many instances, more than enough inspiration to return for another day. A question was asked me once, ‘Did I know anyone whose life had been changed by coming to the Gathering?’ The first person I thought of was me. End of story.”

Dennis shared this story:

“I worked for thirty five years for a company downtown. I saw many people who called the street their home. I watched them walk the streets aimlessly, saw them sleeping in alleys, searching for food. If by chance you would walk past them the question was always the same, ‘Hey, buddy could you spare a dime?’ I must admit most times I would continue on my way but there were times I would share. I finally retired and made a lot fewer trips downtown, but I never felt the downtown street left me. [When] I came across the ad for the Gathering [Operations Manager], I knew this was what I needed in my life and for the people that I had passed for so many years. Here it is 14 years later, driving the third van, a total of 350,000 miles, 1200 stops to fill the vans, tons of food. I am grateful for the opportunity to have worked with the Gathering. I don’t know if I made a difference, but I can tell you the Gathering has made a difference with me.”

We will all miss you, Dennis, for your calm demeanor, your thankfulness, your respect for our guests.

And Jim, even though you will still be around with the Dinner Program, we will miss your diehard belief that organizations and programs and the Gathering can always be better.

Farewell to George Neureuther

One of the most beautiful things about community is that it opens people up to making real connections, building deep bonds and intentionally appreciating another person for who they are. This intentionality, however, can make saying “goodbye” all the more difficult. At the end of September, the Gathering will say goodbye to George Neureuther, who has been a cornerstone in our community for eight years.

George began working full time with the Gathering eight years ago as the Volunteer Manager and Breakfast Coordinator. He then transitioned into a part time role as the Breakfast Coordinator and began working with Interchange Food Pantry as well. At the end of September 2014, George will be working full time as Interchange Food Pantry’s Executive Director. He will be sorely missed.

When asked to share one of his most memorable experiences with the Gathering’s breakfast program, George explained one rather peculiar and special connection with a guest by the name of Eddy.

“Eddy had been homeless for 25 years. He always came in the morning, gave me a piece of paper, a napkin, or maybe an empty bottle of mouthwash to sign. It had his name, the date on it, and where to sign it. Every day I’d give him pen and paper and he would write down his name and the Gathering and the date. It was a routine like that. I got used to it. One day I ran into him (outside of breakfast) and we had coffee together. Eddy talked about downtown Milwaukee in the 70s, and he described it to a ‘T’. He was just a really interesting, fantastic guy.”

Eddy certainly wasn’t the only guest George connected with. While a signature may seem incidental, it is such connections and routines, small and large, that George was able to use to foster a warm, welcoming atmosphere at the breakfast program:

“I’m going to miss the camaraderie with our guests. By far that’s the thing I’ll really miss - the feeling that you’re really amongst friends and family. Because that’s what (our guests) do - they connect with each other and try to be there for each other. Even though there may at times be problems between guests, for the most part they’re always looking out for each other. That taught me a lesson to be more compassionate to people I’ve met.

George’s unwavering compassion left an impact on a lot of guests, but the Gathering’s guests also left an impact on him. George explained what the Gathering taught him over the years:

“I’ve come to an understanding about being more compassionate, how important it is to treat everyone the same, with kindness and respect. You never have the right to treat anybody negatively. Our guests have always taught me about being patient. They have to wait in line here for breakfast; they may have to go to a medical clinic and wait in line an hour or two there; go for a shower somewhere and have to wait another hour there. They’re very patient and it has taught me to practice more patience. Also, they taught me the ability to share. When you see someone who has 50 cents and that person gives a quarter to somebody else so they can catch the bus…It’s pretty touching. It shows you that giving is really important, even if it hurts you a little bit, it’s important.”

Breakfast program guests and volunteers alike have vocalized how much they will miss George and thanked him for all of his hard work.

“He is really a kind and good-hearted man.” – Jim, Dinner Program Coordinator and Operations Manager

“One talent George has brought to the Gathering is his ability to connect with guests and volunteers. I will miss his humor and light-heartedness the most. I know he will be missed…He will be missed by us, but also he will be missed tremendously by the guests. He has developed relationships with many of our regular guests and our regular volunteers. I think we’re going to have a lot of questions asked in the next couple weeks about where he is!” – Marianne, Office and Database Manager

“I'm positive he has done many things for many people outside his official duties for The Gathering. While my granddaughter Hannah was recuperating after her tonsil surgery, he sent her a get well card with a McDonald’s gift certificate inside. She, whenever possible, would come to work with me and the highlight for her would be seeing and talking to George. He once hid a potato in the hood of her sweatshirt with the pretense of giving her a hug and she still talks about ‘Crazy George hiding a potato.’ I have always been impressed with his compassion for the guests and volunteers and his communication skills that were used daily promoting the vision of the Gathering with our volunteers.” – Dennis, Operations Manager

“Whether it’s guests, volunteers, whoever – George recognizes the importance of getting everyone involved and including everyone into the community. No one is ever excluded with George, no matter how difficult that person may be to work with – he was always able find a spot for him/her. When I first started working with The Gathering, he trusted and encouraged me and he still does today, two years later. It means a lot. One thing I learned from George is to never take anything too seriously. This line of work can sometimes be exhausting, but George always had a smile and a joke. He always had a positive word to say to his guests and volunteers. He fostered an environment of joy at the breakfast program and whoever comes next will have big shoes to fill.” – Becky, Program and Volunteer Manager

“I have worked with George for over eight years now as his supervisor.  He has a unique ability to relate to all types of people, both the guest population and volunteers, and he is beloved.  Being the Breakfast Coordinator is not an easy job. You have to be awake and hospitable at 6:30 in the morning whether you are facing a sunny day, pouring rain or a blizzard.  You have to be able to build a team of diverse volunteers from both our guest population and the community at large, whether from a business, a school, a church or just curious…every single day.  And it is never the same group. You have to be willing and able to deal with difficult situations from both the guest and volunteer populations and to do so in a respectful manner.  You have to be hospitable and welcoming even if you don’t feel like it, and you have to be able to say ‘no’ when the person desperately wants you to say ‘yes’. Thank you George for eight years of doing all of that with compassion and grace.”  – Ginny, Executive Director

It is clear that George has truly left an impact on the Gathering’s breakfast program and community. Although this may be a goodbye, we know that this is just another chapter of kindness and compassion for George and we look forward to seeing where his passion will take him next. In the meantime, we will miss our usual suspect.