Late last month, local volunteer Wendi Eliason got a surprise when she showed up for some hours with Arrowhead Economic Opportunity Agency's Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP).
AEOA volunteer coordinator Nancy Frischmann presented her with a plaque signed by former President Barack Obama for the Presidential Lifetime Achievement Award. Since she started volunteering with RSVP in 2009, Eliason has volunteered more than 4,700 hours for a variety of area organizations from the Waterfront Center in Two Harbors, Lake County Mental Health Task Force and North Shore Horizons to Community Partners, the Lake Superior School District Head Start program and the Two Harbors Area Food Shelf.
"Wendi is a different kind of volunteer," Frischmann said. "Wendi is a great example. She is almost like a professional volunteer because she has served so many different agencies."
Eliason said her life as a volunteer started when her oldest son was 10 and dealing with some mental health issues. She had been in an abusive marriage while she was pregnant with her son, now 25, and she left the situation while still pregnant. However, she believes the stress of the relationship and leaving the situation led to an in utero stroke for her son that has led to a number of different physical and mental problems.
A friend told Eliason about the Minnesota Association for Children's Mental Health annual conference in St. Paul and suggested it could benefit her son and her family.
"It was very expensive, about $300 for three days, so I found out that if you volunteered, you could go for free. Now it is something that I do every year," Eliason said. "In 2006, I was asked to be a part of a mental health advisory committee. I got more and more involved as time went on."
Since that time, Eliason's volunteer work has blossomed at numerous organizations around Lake County and she has demonstrated a talent for organizing and project management.
"Wendi is completely reliable and amazing at follow through with projects and schedules," THAFS director Michelle Miller said. "She always knows where and whom to go to get things accomplished."
Eliason believes she has a gift for helping others and to contribute to the local community. She didn't start volunteering seeking recognition, she was trying to help her son and found a talent and a passion that she wants to share.
"I definitely don't do this for the pat on the back," she said. "I was in an abusive situation but leaving, it just opened me up to the fact that I care about people tremendously, and I want everyone to have resources. Knowing what it felt like when that conference became available to us, I want to make that possible for other people."
Her experience in that abusive relationship also led her to North Shore Horizons and helping others who were in a similar situation and have made the decision to get out.
"A lot of times, when you've been abused, it is the nights that are the hardest," Eliason said. "So being with somebody that is going through that, you can have a special connection that nobody else can understand."
And while she wasn't seeking recognition for her work, Eliason has discovered another benefit to her volunteer work, she tends to know a lot more people in town these days.
"When I go to the grocery store, I see all of these people I know," she said. "I call myself a 'knowbody' because I know people. One of the benefits of this volunteering is getting to know so many people and getting to talk to them. Just knowing people that I never would have known before has helped validate me on who I really was before I got into an abusive relationship and who I was after."
At the end of the day, however, it's not about getting to know people, awards or other recognitions, it's about having the ability and the will to try make the local community a better place, one hour at a time.
"She feels called to serve," Frischmann said. "She needs to serve other people. To be humble, give of her time and make a difference in the community is what is important to her. She's just one of those people who truly is a servant."