United Way Honors Outstanding Community Volunteers

United Way of 1000 Lakes’ mission is to mobilize the caring power of Itasca-area communities to improve lives in measurable and lasting ways. Encouraging and facilitating volunteerism is a key component of this mission, providing capacity-building resources to volunteers and the nonprofits that work with them.  

Volunteerism is crucial to the success of many nonprofits, and many would not be able to function without them. On a given day around the region, volunteers are at work – building homes, caring for people, and providing vital support to organizations.

Annually, United Way celebrates the power of volunteerism with the Volunteer of the Year Award, honoring inspirational individuals who go above and beyond and give selflessly to make our community a better place. As National Volunteer Week begins, United Way places a spotlight on four exceptional volunteers – this year’s award nominees.

Geneva Francisco: Essentia Health

“Geneva has been the smile that has greeted patients and families for many years,” says Sheila Maki, Volunteer Coordinator at Essentia Health. 

Geneva Francisco has a history of giving back, with over a half-century of volunteer service. One of the many roles she’s held is with Essentia Health, where she is one of the healthcare organization’s most dependable volunteers. Each Tuesday, she works at the clinic’s welcome desk, putting visitors at ease with her smile and infectious laugh. Geneva is such a steadfast presence that staff and patients seek her out. Her service and commitment to the organization and patient care are reflected not only through her involvement in making them feel welcomed but also as a volunteer Board member. Maki cites, “her willingness always to step up and be that person” as one of the qualities that makes Geneva an invaluable volunteer.

Greg Frazier: Second Harvest North Central Food Bank

Greg Frazier is an exemplary community volunteer at Second Harvest Food Bank in Grand Rapids, working at least two morning shifts every week. He serves an essential role in ensuring that the food shelf is stocked and ready to assist the hundreds of local families relying on it for their nutritional needs. “Without [volunteers], Second Harvest wouldn’t be able to meet the food needs of our community,” says Michelle Hipsag, Second Harvest’s Volunteer Coordinator. 

Greg doesn’t shy away from tasks, from stocking shelves to packing food packages. Staff describes Greg as joyful, enthusiastic, and energetic, with positive qualities that he spreads to the team. As the food shelf sets up each morning, staff and fellow volunteers can hear Greg’s confident baritone voice booming throughout the building with kind words. “Just by being present,” says former Volunteer & Marketing Specialist Andy Sween, “Greg lifts the whole team up.” 

Gwenn Smith: Grace House

Gwenn Smith is passionate about providing shelter and combatting homelessness. As an overnight site volunteer at Grace House, Gwenn spends a night each week helping guests with their nighttime needs and monitoring the shelter. Gwenn takes care to visit with guests and makes sure they feel welcome, something that plays a vital role in creating a positive experience for guests. Over the past ten years, she has clocked nearly 3,700 community service hours with Grace House, substantially impacting its operations.

Gwenn is also active in community organizations serving the Deer River area, including the Deer River Area Community Fund, the Forward Health Foundation, and St. Mary’s Church. “Gwenn is an outstanding volunteer,” says Ron Oleheiser, Grace House’s Executive Director. “She is truly deserving of our gratitude and recognition.”

Ellen Teigland: Grand Rapids Area Library

Ellen’s path with the Grand Rapids Area Library began six years ago when she served as a shelving volunteer. Her enthusiasm came through, and she soon moved into leadership roles, now serving on the library’s Board of Directors and as President of the Friends of the Library board. In addition to logging time in the boardroom, Ellen works in the library several days a week, repairing books, processing items, and helping manage the Friends of the Library used bookstore. Ellen contributed 589 hours to the library in 2022 alone.

Ellen’s passion and experience mean that staff often rely on her for advice, and she often trains new volunteers in the bookstore’s operations. Ellen’s commitment to going above and beyond makes her a critical part of the library and an asset to the community at large. “Staff love having Ellen in the library,” says Library Volunteer Coordinator Nicole Johnson. “She is a friendly, supportive, and welcoming presence.” 

Each of these volunteers is in the running for the Volunteer of the Year Award. Nominees will be honored, and the award will be presented at United Way’s Community Celebration on May 25th, 2023, from 4:30 – 6:30 p.m. at the Timberlake Lodge in Grand Rapids. Community Celebration admission is free and open to the public; however, advanced reservations are required. To learn more about United Way’s Community Celebration and reserve seats, visit uwlakes.org/community-celebration or call 218-999-7570.