United Way of the Mark Twain Area holds first Evening of Philanthropy event

Many individuals in Northeast Missouri are working hard to improve human conditions, working behind the scenes with little to no recognition. They don’t look for the spotlight, but they do the work, because it needs to be done.

On Saturday night, the United Way aimed the spotlight at them. United Way hosted the first Evening of Philanthropy to honor individuals who were living out the mission and vision of the United Way within their own lives.

“This evening we will be honoring individuals who live out the values of the United Way in their own lives by dedicating their time, talents and treasures to causes bigger than themselves,” said Justin Gibson, a United Way board member and investment representative with Benson Financial, which sponsored the evening’s festivities.

Four awards were given to area individuals who have worked to empower individuals to achieve their potential. WGEM produced videos sharing about the good work of these individuals.

Robert Wealer, 11, was honored as the Philanthropic Youth of the evening. When Robert was eight years old, he learned about food insecurity and asked his parents if he could host a food drive to help with the issue.

Robert now hosts an annual food drive during the holiday season and donates food to the Salvation Army in Hannibal. Community members, businesses, and organizations then step up to be part of his annual food drives.

“It is just really good knowing that people are in that much better of a state just because of me helping a little for three months throughout the span of three years,” Robert said.

His efforts have led to more than 27,000 food items being donated to needy families in the area.

The late Ralph Griesbaum was honored as the Life-Long Philanthropist for his work spearheading Project Protein in Northeast Missouri. Historically, food banks have been short when it comes to meat products for their clients. Griesbaum started Project Protein to change this.

“We don’t know how Dad did it, he just said it was going to happen and it happened. He fed 1.4 million people,” said his daughter, Lacey Miller.

Through his efforts, having hogs donated and raising dollars for the processing of those animals, 1.4 million protein rich meals ended up on local tables of underprivileged families.

“The responsibility that he left with us now is humbling and is insurmountable,” Miller said. “My feet aren’t big enough to fill those boots, and I don’t look very good in a cowboy hat, so I’ll leave that to him, but the determination I have now to fulfill the legacy he left, to not leave it where the tractor left it, is something I take very seriously. It is something I will never stop doing. His life was cut short, but his legacy will live forever.”

Kevin and Denice Blew were honored as the year’s Philanthropic Couple. The couple came to Shiloh Christian Children’s Ranch 35 years ago to be home parents for abused, neglected and troubled children. They thought they would stay for three to five years as professional parents, but they made promises to some of their first children that they would see them through to adulthood, and 35 years later, they are still raising children at Shiloh.

“Our hope is to demonstrate a family type setting, and a Christian family type setting, because that is the ins and outs of every day, that’s the ups and downs of life, that’s a good day with us, or a good day with something else, or maybe a tough day, but that’s called life,” said Denice Blew.

Together, the Blews have been parents to more than 130 children through their years at Shiloh Christian Children’s Ranch in rural Clarence. They have given their entire lives to raising children who are in need of a good home.

“Sometimes a kid has to run on our faith and our hope until they can come up with some of their own,” said Kevin Blew. “There is a bigger need than there has ever been.”

Kate Dougherty of rural Taylor was named the Philanthropic Individual. Kate’s son was born with Down Syndrome.

“We felt that everybody was operating under the same baseline as what we were, the same base of knowledge that individuals who live life differently can go onto achieve anything, their fullest potential,” Dougherty said.

What she found out was that individuals looked at the limitations of those with disabilities instead of their potential. After being inspired while attending the National Down Syndrome Congress national convention, Dougherty founded a non-profit that works to send local individuals with disabilities, their families, educators and physicians to national and international conferences. This is so individuals with disabilities in the tri-states can have access to the best resources in the world.

“There are three philosophical ideas and it is very simple,” said Dougherty. “Every child is a gift, every child can learn, and every child learns differently.”

The evening’s honorees were celebrated and tears were shed by many of the individuals in attendance who were very inspired and touched by the great work.

The United Way plans to host the Evening of Philanthropy each year to bring individuals into the spotlight who work hard to empower others to achieve their potential.

“United Way is about building our communities by improving people’s lives and tonight’s honorees embody the spirit of United Way,” said Jill Janes, United Way of the Mark Twain area chair.