The right thing to do

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Employers recognized with inaugural award for demonstrating compassion for employees in need

Story by Lee Marie Reinsch

We’ve all been told to save for emergencies. But there’s a difference between a fender bender and terminal cancer.

The thing about crises is that they’re limitless. There’s almost no cap on how much one can cost, mentally and fiscally. It can cost a few hundred dollars, or it could cost the life and wellbeing of you and your family.

And in the workplace, you can feel isolated as the rest of the world keeps spinning and your employer expects you to keep on working as if nothing’s wrong.

Unless you work for a compassionate employer – one willing to share that pain with you.

The nonprofit Community Benefit Tree – along with media sponsor New North B2B magazine – selected two northeast Wisconsin employers for its inaugural Compassionate Employer Award: the Neenah Police Department and Hand to Shoulder Center of Wisconsin in Appleton. They’ll be presented with the award Nov. 11 at Community Benefit Tree’s annual Life Celebration night at Grand Meridian in Appleton.

“So many times we have seen where families (that have a crisis) lose their jobs because the employer doesn’t show that compassion and understanding, and we’re trying to create awareness of that,” said Heidi Frederickson, co-founder of Community Benefit Tree with her mother, Karla Wolfinger.

She said she’s hoping the Compassionate Employer recognition encourages employers to have protocols in place for employee crises.

“It’s (about) putting that little extra bit of effort into their employees, because they should think of them as family and not as a number,” Frederickson said. “Part of that is helping them through difficult times.”

Frederickson and Wolfinger started Community Benefit Tree 10 years ago as an offshoot of an event named for their father and husband who died from a heart attack at 54. The Larry Wolfinger Charity Golf Outing has been going for 22 years.

To date, Community Benefit Tree has helped out with 500 Celebration of Support events to help individuals going through an unexpected medical crisis, and has put together at least 60 Celebration of Support funds that don’t have an event attached to them, Frederickson said. They also have six community funds for which people can apply.

Employers don’t need to be large or even have a human resources department to help employees suffering through life’s lowest moments, Frederickson said.

“Whether you’re big or whether you’re small, it’s getting to know the resources around you so that you can help your employees,” she said.

Providing support

X-ray technician Heather Biese could have been one of those employees losing their jobs, had her employer, Hand to Shoulder Center of Wisconsin, not been there for her.

Her husband’s diagnosis and treatment for osteosarcoma in February required many treks down to Milwaukee that would have resulted in unpaid missed days of work if her coworkers hadn’t teamed up to help.

“They donated many vacation days and sick days just to help out,” Biese said. “I’ve always said that working at Hand to Shoulder is like working with your family – it’s such a tight-knit group of people. Everybody cares about each other, and everyone will do anything to help out each other.”

Her coworkers also raised money for her by selling yellow rubber custom-made “Biese Strong” bracelets modeled after the “Livestrong” bracelet campaign, and by hosting blue jean days and potlucks. Her friends organized a meal train so Biese wouldn’t have to cook while navigating a busy schedule.

“It would have been much more stressful (without their support),” Biese said.

She said the doctors at Hand to Shoulder told her not to feel guilty about missing work to care for her husband. “They said ‘Do what you have to do,’” she said. “I felt guilty anyway, but nobody made me feel bad about it.”

Biese and her husband have a toddler who was six months old when the diagnosis occurred.

Hand to Shoulder practice administrator Tina Sauer could empathize, as she’d been through her own husband’s cancer when their baby was a month old.

“Knowing how difficult it was to try to work, maintain a job, try to take care of a sick spouse and take care of an infant, I knew she was going to need some help,” Sauer said. She called a team summit to brainstorm ways to make Biese’s life easier. “Immediately people started offering to give up vacation time for her … so she could take off to take care of Mike or take him to Milwaukee or whatever she needed to do and not suffer financially.”

Some people gave away entire days, others a half day, including some who don’t know Biese all that well.

“It was heartwarming and surprising to see people who aren’t necessarily working side by side with her but (who) were wanting to do something,” Sauer said. “What else can we do? We can’t walk a mile in her shoes.”

Biese isn’t the first to receive such treatment. Employees at Hand to Shoulder have banded together to help others in the past, and awareness events such like cancer walks are a regular part of its culture.

The employer hosts food drives for area food pantries, and they’ve sold ribbons and bracelets for other employees.

Its “Adopt-a-family” teams raise funds via raffles, lunches, bingo and cookouts, and once a year, a committee decides where the money goes, Sauer said. That can be to another employee, a friend or acquaintance of an employee, or even a patient who is down on their luck.

This year the proceeds benefitted an employee’s niece, whose baby was born with a clubfoot severe enough to warrant treatment every five days in Iowa, according to Sauer.

“It’s kind of the whole philosophy of the practice, not just the employees, to be very nurturing and very giving,” Sauer said.

Welcome assistance

Brenda Van Sambeek doesn’t work at the Neenah Police Department, nor does her twin brother, single dad and Army Sergeant 1st Class Brian Eisch. Her husband Tom does.

She nominated the department for the Compassionate Employer Award for kindness shown to her family four years ago when her twin was wounded in Afghanistan.

“I got the call from our older brother, Shawn, that Brian had been shot. He was on a military plane, but (due to military policy) the officer couldn’t tell us anything that happened,” Van Sambeek said. “He was alive but had been shot three times.”

She called her husband, Lt. Tom Van Sambeek, and a short time later a captain at the police department called, asking what they knew and what the department could do for their family. More calls followed from other people who worked with Tom, along with cards and gift baskets for Eisch.

Van Sambeek visited her brother a week later at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

“Walking into his room with his two young boys, and seeing him for the first time since his injuries a week later was awful,” she said. “But getting several phone calls from him over the next several weeks reporting all the amazing gifts and cards he was receiving made it easier. I think he was also overwhelmed by the outpouring of love, care and concern from perfect strangers.”

Neenah Police Chief Kevin Wilkinson featured Eisch’s story in one of his columns for the Post-Crescent of Appleton, calling him a hero, and the department newsletter made note of Eisch as well. When Eisch returned to Wisconsin, the police department honored him for his sacrifice with a plaque.

Wilkinson says it’s not unusual for his employees to rise to the occasion when someone has bad news.

“We’re concerned for our employees. We like to maintain kind of a family relation here, and when something happens here – whether a brother-in-law, a grandma, something like that – it certainly affects our employees and their relationships with other employees here as well,” Wilkinson said.

That’s what surprised her, said Van Sambeek.

“I didn’t work for them – my husband did – and they were doing all these selfless acts,”  she said. “It was all just very moving, that people who don’t know me directly would do that for him.”

The department has had no dearth of reasons to reach out to its own in recent years: In 2012 an employee died of cancer, and less than a year later, the department learned that the 10-year-old son of an officer had been diagnosed with leukemia.

“We’ve had other matters come up with a spouse or a parent that have been very difficult,” Wilkinson said. “We can’t accommodate each one … but we certainly try to bend and flex as much as we can, to accommodate and meet the needs of the employee.”

A rainbow after the storm

Community Benefit Tree executive director Heidi Frederickson said one reason her organization initiated the Compassionate Employer Award is that they saw a gap between employees’ needs and workplace support.

“There was a need in direction on how to plan it, to help the families with the financial piece of it or the emotional piece of it or the spiritual piece of it,” Frederickson said. “We’re just trying to be that gap if there was a need in any of those items.”

Lee Marie Reinsch of Green Bay worked 18 years at daily newspapers before launching her freelance business, edgewise, in 2007.