Like many in the Fremont community, March 15, 2019, is a day that WholeStone Farms Chief Operations Officer Steve Weers will never forget.
The Platte River rose, levees were breached, and many Fremont residents lives were forever changed as homes and businesses were flooded throughout the southern half of the community.
While the floodwaters never reached the WholeStone Farms facility on Platte Avenue, the plant was evacuated and many employees were left with no home to go back to.
All in all 107 WholeStone Farms employees were greatly affected by the flood, according to the local plant’s CEO Scott Webb.
“They pretty much lost everything,” he said.
But—much like the Fremont community as a whole—their fellow employees jumped into action in an effort to help those left without a home to go back to.
“Shortly after the flooding hit, we had team members asking how they could help their fellow co-workers affected by the flooding,” Weers said. “That’s when we decided to do the match program.”
In two weeks, employees at WholeStone Farms had raised $25,000 for their fellow employees affected by flooding which was matched dollar for dollar by WholeStone Farms.
“We wanted to rally around them and they rallied in a big way,” Webb said.
Employees at all levels of the company gave to support their co-workers.
WholeStone’s Employee Enrichment Committee Team held a potluck to support the effort—charging $6 for a plate.
“The line was all the way down the hallway with everyone waiting patiently and calmly,” Weers said. “They charged $6, but people were handing out $10s and $20s—it was really emotional.”
When the lunch was over, they had raised $4,500 for their co-workers.
“The compassion, collaboration, and caring we have witnessed is overwhelming and a blessing,” Weers said.
After its employees raised $25,000 for their colleagues, and WholeStone matched with $25,000 of their own to support its workers, the company’s focus shifted to supporting the Fremont community as a whole.
Following its initial effort, Webb reached out to Wholestone’s owners which include over 200 independent farmers throughout the upper Midwest.
“Many of our owners sent money in and even several of our vendors that we do business with, our insurance provider to even our recruiting firm based out of California that was used to do the CEO search,” Webb said.
That effort netted another approximately $52,000 which was then divvied up between the Fremont Area United Way and Lutheran Family Services to support flood relief programs throughout the community.
“We split that up between these two great organizations with the thought process that not only would that further help our employees, but also help everybody in the community,” Webb said.
While the first $50,000 went directly to employees to address their immediate needs, the donations that went to the United Way and Lutheran Family Services represent a first step in the long term recovery efforts that will likely last for years to come.
“We are going to put them into the Long-Term Recovery Group and we’re going to address housing, housing needs, and safe affordable places for all in our community,” Fremont Area United Way Executive Director Shawn Shanahan said.
The Long-Term Recovery Group consists of several local governmental entities — including the City of Fremont, Dodge County, Winslow, Inglewood, Hooper and Scribner/Snyder — as well as a swathe of area nonprofits. That includes the Fremont Area United Way, Lutheran Family Services, Fremont Family Coalition, Three Rivers Public Health Department and others.
The group’s primary focus is case management — working with individuals who, perhaps, didn’t get as much assistance from FEMA’s public assistance program as they needed, or who didn’t qualify for assistance, or who may have other lingering, unmet needs.
“We will be using the funds for carpet, drywall, sub-flooring repair, and maybe even to be a donor and a partner into some new housing so we can get folks out of their current housing situations,” Shanahan said.
While the donation to the United Way will be used for long term recovery efforts throughout the area, Lutheran Family Services is focused on addressing the need of individuals still impacted by the flood.
“We partner with the United Way on a continuous basis and their role is more of addressing the larger vision, while we work with specific families and individuals to make sure their needs are met,” Michelle Padilla, program manager at the LFS Dunklau Center for Healthy Families in Fremont, said. “We take care of basic needs and make sure people are living in healthy environments, their children’s basic needs are taken care of, and we don’t put anyone at further risk.”
Shanahan says that the effort by WholeStone to take care of its own people, and to support long term recovery efforts in the community as a whole, represents the commitment the company has to Fremont.
“What I think is really important and what goes above and beyond the dollars we received is WholeStone Farms really taking a leadership role and serving their community in many capacities due to this disaster,” she said.
It also represents a microcosm of a larger effort to make Fremont a “bridge community” through partnerships between local government, businesses, non-profits and citizens to lift people out of poverty and to keep people in the community.
“We as a community have decided to launch the effort to be a bridge community, which means collectively we are going to address poverty and the impact of poverty on the community,” Shanahan said. “In poverty, when there is a crisis the family members fight or flee. If there is not a support system they leave.”
That is why efforts like those undertaken by WholeStone to support its own employees, and its willingness to partner with organizations like the United Way and Lutheran Family Services to support the community-at-large are so important, says Shanahan.
“People flee following disasters because there is not a support system and not a safe place to go—that didn’t happen here,” she said. “WholeStone obviously has a great culture, and a great work environment. People like to come to work, because they feel like an invested employee and have a support system.”