By Tanner Kent
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — In the continuing battle for equality, it’s often the individual who makes the difference. And every year since 1973, the Mankato YWCA has recognized the women who are making that difference.
This year’s recipients of the Women of Distinction awards are Pam Determan, Julie Vetter and Anne Willaert. Wells Fargo earned the second-ever Distinctive Difference award and Terri Hanson received the Young Woman of Distinction award.
Though the YWCA has recognized about 120 women during the awards’ 40-year history, each group of winners feels as if it could be the most distinct yet. This year’s crop is no exception.
Two years ago, Determan had the opportunity to personally thank the woman who inspired her.
That woman was Verna Dargen, Determan’s fifth-grade teacher at St. Joseph’s Elementary School in her hometown of Hopkins. The year that Determan was in her class, Dargen’s husband died. And with her three children already grown, Dargen turned to her students for comfort.
Determan said she remembers going to her teacher’s house on the weekends to make crafts and volunteering at nursing homes together. They also taught an area Sunday school for disabled youth together for seven years until Determan graduated.
Determan has honored her mentor’s lessons in giving ever since.
She jumpstarted a Mankato branch of the Faith in Action network in 1995. For two years, she operated alone. In fact, Mankato’s first Rake the Town event amounted to Determan’s children raking about 50 yards by themselves.
Now, VINE Faith in Action boasts more than 500 volunteers and a variety of programs for senior citizens. Last year, VINE purchased the Nichols building from the Blue Earth County Board with the intent of constructing a $4 million adult center.
Just one more.
When the day has already been too long and exhaustion is setting in, Julie Vetter hears her grandfather’s admonishment. The sound begins somewhere in the distance, near her family’s Mapleton farm where she was expected to pull the same chore load as her three other siblings — especially during growing season when the beans needed walking and weeding.
“One more,” her grandfather would say when Vetter’s young brow was soaked in summer sweat and her aching limbs were begging for quitting time. “Just one more row.”
Vetter can still hear his voice.
“I still think about that,” she said. “It does push me along a little bit. I’ll feel like it’s time to quit, but then I’ll say: ‘Do one more. Do one more thing.’”
Evidence of Vetter’s perseverance and dedication are not hard to find.
She served for 10 years on the YWCA’s board, eventually moving up to president. From there, she joined the Mankato chapter of Zonta International, a service club that works to advance the status of women. In addition, Vetter is serving as the president of the Mayo Clinic Health System of Mankato Auxiliary.
Every team needs a finisher. And those that play for the values of empowerment, dignity and freedom have Anne Willaert.
“She really has, for a long time, lived and worked the mission of the YWCA,” said Anne Ganey, who should know. Ganey is the former director of the YWCA and herself a Woman of Distinction in 2003. During the time she worked at the YWCA, Ganey wasn’t allowed to nominate. Willaert was her first choice after accepting a new position at South Central College last year.
More than a decade ago, Willaert was a driving force behind the growth of a small, refugee assimilation program in the basement of First Presbyterian Church into Community Assistance for Refugees — a non-profit organization that helped refugee families resettle in Mankato for nearly 20 years before it disbanded in 2009.
Before that, she helped organize the day care program for Mankato Area Catholic Schools.
“I like to develop,” Willaert said. “I like to stay busy.”
Three years ago, Willaert transitioned to SCC where she began implementation of a $4.5 million Department of Labor grant to create new career pathways for under-served and minority populations.
Kelli Hanson Magnuson felt a little miffed when she saw her sister graduate in December.
Though Terri Hanson was a good student, she didn’t have the decorative tassels or fancy hardware flaunted by many of her Minnesota State University colleagues.
“But if there were an award for community engagement,” Kelli said, “she’d be in a full-body armor suit.”
Terri was only a freshman at Mankato West when she began volunteering with Connecting Kids and with the YWCA’s Girls on the Run program.
She’s volunteered extensively with the Riverside Regional Pet Shelter and spent several months last fall providing hospice care to a dying horse named Red, for whom she was willing to purchase medications out of pocket. She volunteers with the Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota and continues to work the YWCA as a kindergarten-preparedness instructor.