Meet the 2024 United Way ‘Volunteer of the Year’ Nominees

As part of United Way of 1000 Lakes’ commitment to fostering the spirit of volunteerism, the Volunteer of the Year Award program recognizes the exemplary contributions volunteers are making in our communities and encourages more people to serve. 

The program is one facet of United Way’s strategy to support increased volunteerism in the region, which also includes initiatives like Bonfire, an online volunteer portal (accessible at, and the Volunteer Coordinators Network (VCN), a collaborative of volunteer management professionals.  

“United Way believes the support and leadership of volunteers directly impact the well-being of our community,” said United Way Executive Director, Kim Brink Smith. “Volunteers play a critical part in the success of programs and services that are vital to keeping our region strong and vibrant.” 

As National Volunteer Week begins, United Way thanks the thousands of volunteers for their leadership and commitment and congratulates this year’s Volunteer of the Year award nominees. 

United Way calls out to the community each spring to submit volunteer nominations. Four volunteers, nominated by their peers and organizations they volunteer with, were recognized: Kathy Laffin, Advocates for Family Peace; Karen Tinquist, Foster Love Closet; Simon Gretton, Grace House; and Myrna Peterson, Mobility Mania. 


Kathy Laffin: Advocates for Family Peace  

Originally from Wisconsin, Kathy Laffin retired to the area with her husband four years ago. Volunteering in college inspired her passion for advocacy and led her path to being a special education teacher. Now that she’s retired, she is reigniting her passion for volunteering and advocating for causes and issues. 

As a grant writer, Kathy helps identify funding opportunities to support the Itasca Curling Association program and facility. She also regularly helps at club events and bonspiels to help ensure they run smoothly. 

Kathy immediately brought a bright smile and sweet personality to Advocates for Family Peace (AFFP), which offers domestic violence advocacy, emergency housing, supervised visitation, and intervention programs. She volunteers once a week and supports the operations by taking on special projects, answering phones, greeting guests, and helping keep the staff and office organized. She was instrumental in the implementation and organization’s migration to a new database.  

“Kathy has been a dependable volunteer, eagerly initiating new projects and asking what else she could do,” said Shanna Serven, Advocates for Family Peace Operations & Human Resources Generalist. “She always makes her rounds and engages with staff, making everyone who enters our doors feel welcome.”   

Karen Tinquist: Foster Love Closet  

For the past five years, the Foster Love Closet has been quietly operating in Grand Rapids, helping families with children access essential items. Karen Tinquist started and grew the community resource to fill a gap she saw to help foster children and their adoptive families get a head start. Through community support and donations, they provide items like baby gear, baby food, diapers, clothing, toys, books, and outdoor weather gear—at no charge. To help families recover from the pandemic, Karen and her husband, Tim, opened the doors to the public and serve roughly 250 individuals and community agencies weekly. Karen dedicates long hours to organizing, sorting, and hanging the donations received, coordinating the volunteers who help make it possible to operate the store, and preparing the closet to welcome customers.     

“Karen works so hard and pays attention to the little things that support the organization’s success – from supporting agencies after-hours and anticipating the needs of families going through hardships to making sure [the store’s] financials are in order,” said Tim Tinquist. “All these little things come together and create a reliable resource for hundreds of people each week.” 

Simon Gretton: Grace House  

The Grace House provides temporary shelter to people experiencing homelessness. As Itasca County’s only shelter, they rely on volunteers three hundred sixty-five days a year. 

Born and raised in Britain, Simon Gretton is one of Grace House’s most devoted volunteers who help ensure the shelter’s overnight and early morning shifts run smoothly by serving guests, providing support and a listening ear, and overseeing medical emergencies, should they arise. As a paramedic by trade, he teaches first aid and CPR courses for staff and guests, helping them maintain certifications. When he is not serving Grace House, you will find him volunteering at locations throughout the community, including Project Care Free Clinic, the Climate Action Advisory Board for the City of Grand Rapids, and the Unitarian Chapel. 

“Simon volunteers tirelessly through the nights and early mornings, embodying selflessness at its core, going beyond the call of duty, staying late to listen, comfort, and connect with guests needing a shoulder to lean on,” said Elizabeth Johnson, Grace House Volunteer Coordinator. “In both his volunteer work and profession as a paramedic, Simon’s kindness knows no bounds.” 

Myrna Peterson: Mobility Mania  

Myrna Peterson is passionate about creating a community where everyone succeeds. Her dedication to building an inclusive community grew from her own journey, which began in 1995 after a tragic accident that took her own mobility.  

A respected advocate, she fights for legislative change, volunteers countless hours to support community events, and serves in leadership roles on multiple organization boards. As the co-chair of a local movement called Mobility Mania, she has helped increase accessibility awareness, update sidewalks and trails, and improve transportation across northern Minnesota and beyond. In her relentless mission to improve accessibility for all, Myrna was instrumental in bringing goMARTI (Minnesota’s Autonomous Rural Transit Initiative) to Itasca County. She was a key player in building a new handicapped-accessible playground in Ball Club and helped fundraise to obtain handicapped-accessible vehicles for individuals without accommodations. Myrna is a member of the Governor’s Council on Connected and Automated Vehicles and the Governor’s Council on Disability. Additionally, she is a leader on several local nonprofit boards, including the MacRostie Art Center, Itasca Orchestra & Strings, and Reif Performing Arts Council. 

“If Myrna is not volunteering or raising funds for a new initiative, you can find her at an event that is happening in town, supporting and cheering on the people of this community,” says Lisa Arnold, Itasca County Health and Human Services. “She is a teacher by trade, but she should be recognized for teaching all of us what we can and should do to be better humans and better community members.”   

United Way’s Community Impact Committee will select the Volunteer of the Year Award recipient from nominations. All nominees will be honored at United Way’s upcoming Community Impact Celebration on May 23rd, 2024, from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. at the Timberlake Lodge in Grand Rapids. General admission is free and open to the public; however, reservations are required. To reserve seats, visit or call 218-999-7570.