The Free Press, Mankato, MN

October 13, 2012

25 years of Civitan: thousands of dollars to local charities

By Robb Murray
Free Press Staff Writer

MANKATO — Nekea Groskopf was just 5 years old when she tagged along to her first Civitan meeting.

That was 25 years ago.

Today she’s the president of the group that has been churning along for 25 years, quietly going about its business of doing good for the community.

But she’ll be the first to tell you she’s just the latest in a long line of people who have been part of a community service group that puts its heart and soul into the work it was set up to do. For the record, Civitan’s primary goal is helping people with developmental disabilities, but that hasn’t been the only object of their philanthropy.

“It’s fun to get involved,” Groskopf said. “It’s a great feeling. I don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to help your community.”

How much have they helped the community? A lot. Those little boxes of mints near the cash registers of area restaurants? Yep, those are Civitan fundraisers.

To date, people have dropped nearly $150,000 in change into those boxes. They’ve raised more than $80,000 through bowl-athons for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. And more. They volunteer. And they’re not surprised at all when they hear there are still more than a few people who have never heard of them.

“We haven’t exactly done the best job of getting the word out,” said Nancy Peterson, Groskopf’s mother and one of the original members.

They’re at 25 years now and have given out thousands of dollars to local charities. But back in the days when it was just an idea, the Minnesota Valley Civitan Club was a fledgling operation that struggled to get off the ground.

Jack Priggen of the Rochester Civitan Club came to Mankato hoping to get a Mankato chapter started. Why Mankato? Mankato State University was here and it had a program for preparing special education teachers.

Priggen came to a nonprofit in Mankato called ARC, which offers services and help for people with developmental disabilities. That’s how Bill Hendrickson got involved; his wife worked at ARC. Priggen asked Hendrickson if he’d be interested in started up a Mankato chapter.

“It was a little daunting,” he said.

But he did it.

Soon he dragged in Peterson, and Pam DeMarce and Diane Osborne. And eventually the original group was formed.

At first, they struggled to find their identity. They had meetings like other service clubs. But it became clear to the members that no one wanted to operate like that.

“We decided to not focus on the meetings,” Hendrickson said, “but to focus on the work. People weren’t here because they were representing businesses. They were here because they wanted to be here.”

Soon after finding their groove, they began doing the work that would define them.

One of those things is their work with Special Olympics. Each year when the games are held, Minnesota Valley Civitan helps run the swimming and basketball events. This includes set up, tear down, finding volunteers and everything in between.

With the money they’ve raised, they’ve had a long history of giving to a variety of charities. LEEP, Holiday Sharing Tree, the Jaycees Magic Show, Safety Camp, The Reach — all have received hundreds of dollars from Civitan.

Also, each year, Civitan has sent a pair of teens to a leadership camp in Michigan that, according to a reliable source, is life changing.

“I went,” Groskopf said. “It was literally one of the best things I’ve ever done.”

One thing most service clubs worry about is youth. There usually isn’t a shortage of older folks willing to join and pay dues ($80 annually). Finding young people, though? Not so simple.

But in the last few years, most of their new members have been age 30 or younger.

“And they’re moving into leadership positions,” Peterson said. “That makes us old-timers feel better.”

To inquire about membership, email mnvalleycivitan@gmail.com.