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Willmar, Minn., area volunteers find their own way to help the community

Gene Fenstra of Willmar measures out a board length to be cut for a remodeling project at the Habitat for Humanity office in Willmar. Fenstra is part of a group of men currently working to renovate the Habitat for Humanity building in Willmar and build a Habitat for Humanity ReStore, which will open sometime this spring. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)

Every Monday through Thursday at exactly 9:30 a.m., a group of about 12 men, all retired, gather around for coffee and cookies. They laugh and joke like old friends and tell each other stories about their lives.

It's a scene that's not so uncommon. But after 15 minutes or so, these retired men finish their coffee, put their work gloves back on and head back to the construction site, where they continue building homes from the ground up.

They're volunteers for Habitat for Humanity of West Central Minnesota, an organization that works to build and renovate houses for people in the community who don't have the means to do it themselves. Volunteers like site supervisors Del Pepple and Bob Rosenbrook are integral to the Habitat for Humanity mission, said Charline Bengtson, sustainability coordinator for Habitat for Humanity of West Central Minnesota.

"They're the key to our mission," Bengtson said. "We're really a volunteer-led organization."

Currently, this particular group of men is working to renovate the Habitat for Humanity building in Willmar and build a Habitat for Humanity ReStore, which will open sometime this spring. They began the building project last January and have come a long way from where they started, said Pepple, who's been volunteering with Habitat for Humanity for about 5½ years. Pepple says he continues to volunteer because it allows him to socialize with like-minded people and also brings him a feeling of satisfaction.

"Working with the guys, we all have a real good time together," Pepple said. "But none of us would be here if we didn't believe in the cause. We get the satisfaction of having helped people. You don't get that feeling from anything else."

Another woman in the community who knows about that feeling of satisfaction is Anne Miller, who's been volunteering for most of her life, especially since her retirement 13 years ago. She's a senior companion sponsored by the Arc of Kandiyohi County and is heavily involved in the organization's People First group, which helps people with physical and mental disabilities find volunteer work in the community.

"Our primary focus is self-advocacy," Miller said. "We encourage people with challenges to give back to the community."

Every month, Miller puts in about 70 hours of volunteering. In addition to People First, she also helps the Arc with their special events, such as their spring and fall dances and their annual New Year's party. She also volunteers for Safe Avenues as a driver and helps answer the phones there one day a week.

"The more we do in the community, the more useful we are," Miller said. "Volunteering is so rewarding."

Without volunteers like Miller, the Arc couldn't function as effectively, said Kari Goldschmidt, office manager for the Arc of Kandiyohi County. Currently, the Arc has about 65 active volunteers, she said. Volunteers also help the Arc with office work and serve as committee members.

Goldschmidt says volunteering is all about matching your interests with what needs to be done in your community.

"Through volunteering, people are able to share their talents, skills and passions with others," Goldschmidt said. "Everyone can find their niche somewhere, and volunteering has so many benefits. It brings this sense of feel-good and of making a difference."

Joline Hovland, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of West Central Minnesota, and Nancy Bruggers, operations support manager, both say that they try to thank their volunteers whenever possible, because they know they couldn't do what they do without those people.

"We say thank you as much as we can," Hovland said.

"We take every opportunity we can to acknowledge them," Bruggers added. "We don't take our volunteers for granted."

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