Cooperative-Sponsored Holiday Program Brightens the Season for Neighbors in Need
Mike Schaefer was driving home to Medford after a trip to La Crosse when a program on the car radio caught his attention. It was 1996, and the holiday season was in full swing. The radio personality had called the home of someone living in the area with the welcome news that it was granting an anonymous wish made on behalf of the person on the other end of the line. It was all part of a greater program through which people in the station’s listening area would make requests for friends and neighbors in need during the holidays. Schaefer was touched by the wish recipient’s surprise and gratitude.
“It sparked something within me, and I thought, ‘Why can’t we do something like that here in our community?’ ” Schaefer said.
As president/CEO of Taylor Electric Cooperative, Schaefer knew there was an ideal vehicle already in place for launching such a program. Taylor Electric is part of the Taylor County Association of Cooperatives, which includes all manner of the area’s member-owned businesses including credit unions, ag supply co-ops, and a mutual insurance agency. Among the Seven Cooperative Principles that guide all co-ops are Cooperation Among Cooperatives and Concern for Community—a community Christmas request program was a perfect fit.
Furthermore, the co-ops had a friend and partner in the local radio station, WKEB/WIGM, owned by Karen and Brad Dahlvig. The radio station has co-op ties itself, with some property on Taylor Electric’s lines, and the Dahlvigs are active community supporters. When Schaefer approached them with his idea, the Dahlvigs readily agreed to have the radio station serve as the central point for promoting the program, hosting committee meetings, and helping to coordinate many of the details.
Under the guidance of a steering committee made up of representatives from each participating co-op, the first Christmas Wish program was introduced in 1997. The radio’s listening audience was invited to call the station with requests for people they knew to be in need of a holiday boost. The committee evaluated all the requests and obtained supplies with a modest budget comprised of contributions from each co-op.
“Our philosophy then was whatever money we got in, we spent that money, thinking the program would last one year,” Karen Dahlvig said.
25 Years and Counting
It’s now 25 years later, and the Christmas Wish program is still going strong. The budget has grown from the initial $3,000 or so provided by members of the Taylor County Association of Cooperatives to more than $20,000, including contributions provided by other community businesses and individuals.
Along with the budget, participation has grown, with the program receiving a record number of requests last year at about 150. Those requests included food and clothing, electric bill payments, propane tank refills, gas cards, and angel figurines in memory of lost loved ones.
This year, Christmas Wish will reach another milestone, as the committee is in the final stages of transforming the program into a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. This will help ensure Christmas Wish will continue to serve people within the WKEB/WIGM listening area long after the founders of this community initiative are no longer involved.
Not that they’re going anywhere any time soon.
“A lot of the people on the committee have been with us since the early years,” Dahlvig said. “They tend to stay with us a long time.”
Among the long-haulers is Schaefer himself. He’s since retired as president/CEO of Taylor Electric Cooperative, although he’s currently serving as interim manager of neighboring Jump River Electric Cooperative while that co-op works through a search for a permanent CEO. However, Schaefer is still actively involved with the Christmas Wish program.
“It’s definitely become a part of my holiday tradition,” he said.
As the Christmas Wish program has grown and changed, one thing has remained the same: It is still a solely co-op-sponsored event. The program’s support base has expanded over the years beyond the Taylor County Association of Cooperatives, but newer sponsors are also co-ops. Dairyland Power Cooperative has contributed to the program since its beginning. Taylor Electric, Jump River Electric, Clark Electric, and Price Electric Cooperatives, all of which serve members within the radio’s listening area, are sponsors as well.
Some co-ops help in other ways; for example, Schaefer said some of the surrounding cheese co-ops often provide products for cheese baskets that are distributed as gifts. Other co-op employees and directors offer their time.
“We have a lot of great volunteers,” Dahlvig said. “That cooperative family, they really step forward and they want to be part of the community.”
Although sponsorship is kept to co-ops, non-cooperative businesses are welcome to contribute, and many of them have generously donated goods. One such business is Black River Transport of Medford, which for several years has contributed a large number of gas and fast-food gift cards to be distributed to Christmas Wish recipients.
Another is Nestle Pizza of Medford, which made a special donation last year to help people cope with the hardships presented by the pandemic. Nestle’s donation enabled the delivery of Christmas packages to more than 550 residents of 26 assisted living and nursing homes in the area.
In addition to its uniquely cooperative nature, Christmas Wish has a uniquely personal touch. The program’s goal is to make the holidays a little brighter for community members who are struggling in any way. Quite often, a simple personal connection generates the most light of all.
“I have a wonderful group of sponsors who allow someone to sit on the committee, and usually through that committee those people volunteer their time to make deliveries and go see people,” Dahlvig said. “And really, that’s an important part of the program because we try to not leave anything on people’s doorsteps… For the most part, we want someone to answer that door so we can hand over that gift in person.”
Schaefer pointed out that sometimes, particularly with elderly recipients who live alone, the Christmas Wish volunteer might be the only person the recipient will see all day. A half an hour spent talking and listening is often appreciated at least as much as the gift itself.
This can be especially true for recipients of the Willow Tree Angels.
This initiative was added to the Christmas Wish program in 2003 and has grown steadily, becoming a highlight of the entire program. Listeners call the radio station with names of friends or neighbors who lost a loved one in the past year, and volunteers deliver an angel figurine to those people. Hope Hospice provides names of people as well. Last year, volunteers delivered more than 100 angels.
“A big part of it is someone coming to deliver that angel, to give the hug, to give the feel that somebody cares,” Dahlvig said.
She added that some recipients might have lost a loved one early in the year, and by the time the holidays come around, most people in their lives have long since moved on. However, the immediate relatives are still grieving as they face the first Christmas without their loved one. The angels are a way of showing these people they’re not alone.
Similarly, angel figurines are delivered to those who are dealing with a special challenge, such as an illness or a serious accident. These recipients might also get gas cards to help them get to medical appointments, or anything else that will help lift their spirits.
“It’s just people remembering people,” Dahlvig said.
Joy of Giving
Although many volunteers return from their deliveries touched by teary encounters with emotional recipients, pure joy abounds as well. Schaefer noted that the committee pays special attention to requests for households with young children. Deliveries to these homes are made by none other than Santa Claus, who brings a helping of holiday cheer along with a bag of gifts.
Whether in a Santa suit or not, volunteers often find the exchanges as meaningful as the recipients do. Schaefer recalled an encounter he and his family experienced when they delivered some gifts and food boxes to a family in which the father had severely injured his back and was unable to work. When Schaefer, his wife, and their five children knocked on the door of this family’s very modest home, they were welcomed inside by the children who proudly showed off their Christmas stockings, which were hung on a simple rope strung along the wall. The joy that the Christmas Wish delivery brought to these children, whose family was facing some big challenges, had a lasting impression on the whole Schaefer family, he said.
“I don’t think there is anything in life that makes me feel as good as sharing the Christmas Wish program and all it has to offer,” Schaefer said.—Mary Erickson