SHEBOYGAN FALLS — For someone with almost nothing, a little means a lot.
Kathy Rowe sees that week in and week out as she packs boxes of food, fills backpacks with school supplies and gathers clothing and toys for children in the Sheboygan Falls School District who would otherwise go without.
“I do it to help the kids,” she says simply of her many-faceted efforts to help the neediest of the district’s students and their families. “Kathy has been an invaluable resource for our schools. Whenever we have a specific need, she is there,” said Nikki Humski, a counselor at Sheboygan Falls Elementary School.
When a district family lost their home in a fire, there was an immediate need for clothing and Rowe came through “in a big way,” Humski said. “She is the district’s anonymous fairy godmother.”
Rowe, a lifelong resident of Sheboygan Falls and a district alumna, was inspired to start her efforts in 2011 after overhearing some district staff talk about the issues faced by needy students and families. A volunteer member of the social ministry team at St. Paul Lutheran Church, she discussed the situation with her pastor, then she met with school officials to determine their needs.
The desire to help soon spread beyond St. Paul and a coalition of nine Sheboygan Falls area churches banded together to respond to the need. The initiative known simply as “Helping Kids” is coordinated by Rowe.
The district contacts her directly when there is a specific situation and she asks her coordinators at the member churches for help, and “Stuff just appears,” she said.
Anything not used is saved in Rowe’s basement. Once her children’s playroom, the basement has shelves of carefully organized non-perishable food and tubs of clothing in all sizes. If she doesn’t have something already, she shops at resale shops for items in excellent shape. “If I would wear it, I will purchase it,” she said. “Just because these families are in need doesn’t mean that these kids have to look ragged.”
She collects all types of clothing including shoes, boots and winter apparel. She also collects personal care items like body wash, shampoo, toothpaste, toothbrushes and deodorant. “Kathy always comes to mind when we have a unique situation where a student needs help,” said Sheboygan Falls Elementary School principal Lynn Bub. “Our office has called her to ask for items that help students overcome barriers that might not even come to mind.”
Bub recalls Rowe helping one family whose home heating wasn’t working and bringing towels and soap to school for a student who needed to shower in the gym locker room.
“When a story of a student-in-need is shared with Kathy, you can literally see the solution forming on her face. She has love for students she hasn’t even met and serves others without hesitation,” Bub said. “What a wonderful role model for all in our community!”
The district has a special account for financial donations to Rowe’s program and she is a careful steward of those resources, extending the money as far as she can by shopping at consignment stores and clearance sales, according to Mary Blaha, the district’s director of business services.
“She humbly does all of this in service to our community’s children,” Blaha said.
At the beginning of each school year, Rowe fills backpacks full of school supplies for students whose families can’t afford them. Children are overwhelmed by the simple pleasure of having a backpack to tote their books and supplies in rather than a paper sack.
During the first year of operation in 2012-13, Helping Kids gave out 35 backpacks with enough school supplies for a year plus personal hygiene products. From 2012-2016, the program gave out 277 backpacks.
Rowe will never forget one little girl who became so excited when she found a toothbrush in her backpack. She asked Rowe, “Is this really mine?” She had never had her own toothbrush before – she had always shared with her sister. “They are so grateful for everything they get,” Rowe said.
In addition to the school supplies, Rowe sends backpacks filled with non-perishable food to a few families who would otherwise go hungry. The backpacks go home twice a month during the school year, and during the summer a food box goes out in July and August.
She also provides winter apparel for those children who don’t have any and makes sure school nurses have extra underwear and socks and personal hygiene products to pass out as needed.
Ann Roy, the district’s director of student services, said Rowe has been especially helpful in working with families of students who are English language learners. She has made sure the children have shoes that fit as they grow and has also given them clothing and food.
At the suggestion of a teacher who had several needy students in her class, Rowe started putting together Birthday Bags to help students who couldn’t afford to bring in birthday treats to celebrate with their classmates. Each bag has cake mix and frosting plus balloons and trinkets to share.
Rowe’s program has helped students at every grade level.
“One sometimes never knows the profound impact that he or she has on people’s lives – I hope that Kathy knows her impact,” said Janis Jarosch, counselor at Sheboygan Falls High School. “She gives the gift of her time to provide support for students in need and does it with a smile and a spirit of generosity and kindness. Her reward is the hope of helping and making a little difference in somebody’s life.”
Rowe says her motivation to help springs from her deep Christian faith. “I’m not trying to push my religion but without the churches, Helping Kids wouldn’t exist,” she explained. “If you’re a true Christian, that’s what the Bible tells you to do – help others.”
Despite some health issues, Rowe plans to keep Helping Kids going as long as she can.