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By Christina Brown

The United Way of 1000 Lakes understands the importance of volunteers.

Within each of the 25 non-profit organizations supported by the United Way in Itasca County, hundreds of volunteers give their time to transform their community and support social causes.  They mentor youth, cook meals for the homeless, and fundraise.  They paint and clean up community spaces, and offer companionship to senior citizens. 

“Volunteers really are the center of our community,” said Kimberly Brink-Smith, Director of the United Way of 1000 Lakes. “They are an essential part of the success of United Way and the programs we support.” 

April is National Volunteer Month, and in honor of its extensive network of volunteers, the United Way of 1000 Lakes has recognized several of these dedicated community members with their Volunteer of the Year awards. 


Dan Fiala is dedicated to helping youth.

Dan Fiala was named a United Way Volunteer of the Year for his support of Itasca Youth For Christ.  For more than 18 years, Fiala has served on the Itasca Youth for Christ’s board of directors and has been instrumental in the organization’s fundraising efforts. 

Itasca Youth for Christ offers weekly programs for youth that blend fun activities and lively discussions while forming relationships with adult leaders.  It also offers mentorship and supportive programing for teens who are currently incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities.

Duane Geisler, executive director of Itasca Youth For Christ, said Fiala has been one of the “unsung” heroes of the organization. 

“He has shown his love for the teens in our area by all of the hours he donates to make the program available to them and running well,” wrote Geisler, who also commended Fiala on his contributions to the board of directors and support of Itasca Youth for Christ staff.  “To have that support from Dan over the past 18 years has been amazing.” 

Carol Kenshcaft gives back to those who helped her.

Carol Kenshcaft was once a guest at Grace House, Itasca County’s homeless shelter.  

Once she was back on her feet, Kenshcaft returned to Grace House as a volunteer, giving more than 800 hours of her time to the homeless shelter by helping with cleaning and meal preparation, training volunteers, making guests comfortable, and connecting them to community resources. 

Last year, Grace House served more than 200 adults and children by providing them with a place to stay, meals, transportation, and connecting them to social service programs in the community. 

Jessica Mohn, volunteer coordinator at Grace House wrote, “Carol has been a great volunteer for Grace House and the staff, board and most importantly our guests, appreciate her efforts.” 

Gary Wildgrube helps homebound seniors with grocery shopping. 

For more than 9 years, United Way Volunteer of the Year Gary Wildgrube has spent nearly every Wednesday delivering groceries to homebound seniors in the Grand Rapids area through ElderCircle’s Groceries-To-Go Program.  

He picks up their grocery orders from the store, delivers them, and often helps put the groceries away. But what matters most to clients, is that Wildgrube takes the time to get to know them and visit with them. 

“He knows a lot of us are lonely and don’t get out, so to have someone like Gary come and talk to us for a while is such a treat,” wrote Betty Johnson, who lives in a senior living apartment complex, and uses Groceries-To-Go. 

The ElderCircle Groceries-to-Go program is just one of the many ElderCircle RSVP programs that connect community members ages 55+ with volunteer opportunities.  The volunteer opportunities serve community needs and help lead to improved physical and mental health for volunteers. 

Kristi Kane, executive director of Elder Circle, said Wildgrube’s dedication to those he helps goes above and beyond their expectations.  

“Gary feels a responsibility to be there for them and to meet more than just their need for groceries,” Kane wrote. “He meets their need for human contact and a strong, personal relationship.” 

Grace Derfler is mentoring young children in the community.

United Way Volunteer of the Year Grace Derfler has been helping children in the community for more than a decade through two programs at Bridges Kinship Mentoring. 

For the past 12 years, she’s served a “lunch buddy” at Murphy Elementary where she meets up for lunch and a fun educational activity with a second grader at the school twice a month. She has also served the past four years as a mentor to a child who is now 12.  

Bridges Kinship Mentoring allows community members the opportunity to serve as positive role models to youth who may not have a strong relationship with a caring and encouraging adult. 

Rich Marcis, program coordinator at Bridges Kinship Mentoring, wrote, “The time commitment as well as the emotional commitment from Grace is impressive.  Grace makes a concerted effort to give her mentee positive experiences out in the community, as well as being there for emotional support.  Grace’s continued impact on youth in our community is invaluable.” 

Kole Kalisch, Sam LaDoux and Trent Klatt say “NO MORE” to domestic violence and sexual assault. 

Volunteers of the Year Greenway Raider Hockey Team Captains Kole Kalisch and Sam Laloux and Grand Rapids Thunderhawk Hockey Team Coach Trent Klatt worked to educate their communities on the need to put a stop to domestic violence and sexual assault by each creating a “NO MORE” domestic violence and sexual assault awareness lip sync video for Advocates for Family Peace. 

Advocates for Family Peace serves victims of domestic violence by working to increase their safety, connecting them with community resources, and advocating for better legal and social systems to support domestic violence victims. 

Melissa Scaia, director of Advocates for Family Peace, wrote that Kole and Sam “provided the necessary leadership amongst community members, teammates, and other male students to partner with Advocates for Family Peace to create a NO MORE domestic violence and sexual assault public awareness lip sync video.” 

The Greenway Raider Hockey Team’s video, led by Kalisch and LaDoux was featured on the national NO MORE campaign’s social media page. 


Scaia also praised Trent Klatt for his role in the NO MORE campaign.  

“He provided the leadership necessary as a community leader and coach to instill values in his players and coaches to partner with community organizations like ours,” wrote Scaia. “Without Trent Klatt’s leadership in this project it would not have been successful. Trent Klatt is worthy of community recognition for his work, commitment and leadership in saying “NO MORE” Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault in our communities.” 

The volunteers awarded the Volunteer of the Year award are just a handful of the many people who support their community with their time and passion for social causes in the community. 

To learn more about volunteer opportunities at United Way, call 999-7570 or visit


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