SIBLEY, Iowa - Given the frequently humorous banter shared around the table of Brad Willemssen’s kitchen recently, the three individuals who coordinate WeCare of Osceola County events care about each other a great deal.
They also care plenty about their fellow county residents, on behalf of whom they’ve been helping since 2012. Willemssen, Barb Schuster and Karey Julius (the most recent addition, who assumed an opening when Kris Vipond moved away) are all glad to lend hands where they can - and are also proud of their county’s communities for consistently stepping up and showing that they care, too.
WeCare’s origins came about when a Sibley couple with an ailing child needed financial assistance.
“We did it for Brad and Lisa Block,” Willemssen recalled. “They had a baby daughter who was a tube-feeder and very ill. I contacted Brad and Lisa and asked them if they wanted a fundraiser, as we always need to get permission first. Then, I called Barb.”
Schuster, who worked for 37 years as dietary manager at Sibley Speciality Care, was recruited to cook for that event.
“I don’t know how I got involved, but I did,” Schuster said with a laugh. “He (Willemssen) started it and does the initial start of any of our fundraisers. He is the hero in the community. I love to give him a bad time, but I have to, just to keep up with these young pups.”
That fundraiser for the Blocks, which was hosted at the Sibley American Legion, raised about $5,000 - Willemssen had arranged for matching Thrivent funds - and was attended by between 200 and 300 people. Given how well that went, it wasn’t long before another fundraiser was launched.
One thing the group - which by this point included Willemssen, Schuster and their spouses, along with Sheryl Peters and Vipond - wanted to do was come up with a name that reflected their charitable efforts.
“I was trying to think of a cool name, like Ocheyedan Catfish Club, but WeCare came up and it stuck,” Willemssen said.
“It really says what we do,” Schuster added.
Additionally, WeCare of Osceola County approached the Osceola County Ministerial Association about distribution of monies from subsequent fundraisers. WeCare still uses the association tax number for its fundraising events.
That next such event came in 2013, when WeCare began an effort on behalf of Sibley-Ocheyedan Elementary student Eli Jansma, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor at seven months and again in 2012. It was the first of two successful fundraisers for the youngster and family, which brought in $5,000 and also included donations such as Minnesota Twins tickets from Keith M. Merrick Co. Inc.
WeCare also undertook a slightly different fundraiser soon after the second Jansma event.
“The Coveris plant did an appreciation day where they fed all the employees and they asked us to feed them,” Willemssen said. “I would guess they had 150 employees. They paid us to do the event, we put it together and they paid us a set amount. Half of that money we gave to Mindy Witham … she lived in Melvin and she was a member of First Presbyterian Church (of Sibley) who was on the prayer chain. The other money stayed in our reserves to help with future fundraisers.”
In 2015, WeCare coordinated a fundraiser for Lyndi Webb, who was living in Sibley at the time.
“She and her husband and two little boys had a house fire while they were living in Ocheyedan, and they moved to Sibley,” Schuster explained. “Then her husband had a couple of accidents - in the last one, he died.”
An omelet brunch was hosted at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Sibley, and a total of more than $9,000 in donations (including gift cards and other items) was raised for Webb, who now resides in Spirit Lake.
It was around this time when Julius began getting increasingly involved with WeCare. Typically, the organization plans an event and then heads out in search of volunteers, and Julius was asked to assist with a benefit for the family of Carly Kriebaum in 2017.
“Kris (Vipond) asked to help at that one,” Julius said. “I did … and now here I sit in her place, but it’s rewarding. When community members struggle or hurt, you kind of hurt with them. You have that sympathy, that compassion."
The event hosted on behalf of Kriebaum was the biggest for WeCare to that point, as it raised $10,000.
“Carly was killed in the Vegas shooting,” Schuster noted, referencing events that took place during a Las Vegas concert on Oct. 1, 2017 that left 58 people dead and more than 850 injured. The incident is the deadliest mass shooting committed by an individual in U.S. history.
“She was married and had two small children, and her mom and dad live in Sibley,” Schuster went on. “She grew up in Sibley and had been living in Sutherland.”
“She painted the mural in the nursery at the Presbyterian church (in Sibley),” Willemssen added.
Julius “sat at the table and counted the people and took the money” at the Kriebaum event. She’s got more of a leadership role now after Vipond’s relocation.
“I like to be an Indian and I don’t really like to be a chief,” she said. “I’m the treasurer now, and that’s OK.”
The death of another Osceola County resident, Brian Daiker of Ashton, brought about WeCare’s next fundraiser. The event - hosted at Sibley-Ocheyedan High School in March 2018 after Daiker’s death in late 2017 - garnered more than $10,000 for Daiker’s wife, Jamiey, and their two children.
Two months later - on behalf of Mike Kraayenbrink, who had to leave his job teaching middle school math in the Sibley-Ocheyedan school district because of cancer - WeCare stepped in to do another fundraiser. Kraayenbrink lives in Sibley, and the event was hosted at the high school. The event included a bake sale, games, silent auction and concession food.
“We made almost $11,000 - actually, it was $10,758,” Wlilemssen said.
“It’s so wonderful that this small community supported both of them (Daiker and Kraayenbrink events) that big,” Schuster said. “We were very, very happy.”
WeCare next coordinated an event for Osceola County veterans to participate in Brushy Creek Honor Flight out of Fort Dodge. While Willemssen said the actual event raised less than $1,000, a Community Foundation of Osceola County grant applied for by WeCare and received Feb. 28 brought in $3,500 to the cause.
Finally, WeCare hosted a benefit for Sibley’s Cavell Van Westen on March 10 at the Sibley Senior Center. Van Westen, a carpenter who happens to be Schuster’s neighbor, was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in June 2018. The event featured a silent auction, bake sale and pork loin meal. It was a record-breaking event for the organization, as more than 600 people attended and approximately $25,000 was raised.
While Schuster was asked long ago to help and Julius came aboard at a later time, it’s agreed that Willemssen has been the impetus and driving force that keeps WeCare playing an important role in Osceola County’s communities. For Willemssen, the group represents a way of paying forward support family members of his received years ago.
“My inspiration came from a car accident that happened on Tuesday, May 23, 2000 in which my niece Taylor (6) and nephew Nick (4) were fatally injured,” Willemssen recalled. “My brother’s wife at the time and niece, Ali, who was an infant, spent a few days in the hospital. Both have recovered from their injuries and are doing well.
“Sometime after the accident the community of Little Rock, the town where I was born and raised, came together to have a fundraiser for my brother and his family. The compassion and financial support Brian received from the community was overwhelming. It is my hope that WeCare is able to do this for the residents of Osceola County.”
Willemssen has lived in Sibley for 20 years and is the electric superintendent for the city of Sibley. While Schuster may joke about a need ”to keep up with these young pups,” she’s also grateful for his energy and leadership.
“We are called to help the community, and Brad was practically raised here,” she said. “He has been the full backbone to this organization. He is the one who picks us up and says, ‘Yea we can, yea we can, yea we can.’
“As long as the community supports these fundraisers, that shows there’s really a need,” Schuster added. “We’re just so happy our communities keeping coming through for Osceola County people.”