Volunteer of the Month: Team puts in time

ESCANABA – For Bill and Janet LaMarch the greatest reward is a child’s smile. Because of their continued service to the community they have been selected as the Daily Press and NewPage Volunteer of the Month.

After more than 50 years of marriage, Bill and Janet, of Escanaba, know exactly how to compliment each other on a team – which is exactly how the duo views their volunteer work together.

“That’s my partner,” said Bill motioning towards Janet. “Everything I do, it’s her and I, and if you get me to volunteer for something? You get me, you get her. If she volunteers for something? You get her, you get me.”

Janet echoed the sentiment. “Usually, whatever organization he’s in I’m there doing with him,” she said.

The partnership has worked well for the couple. They are actively involved with multiple organizations and auxiliary groups including the Marine Corps League, Disabled American Veterans, VFW, American Legion, Vietnam Vets, U.P. Whitetails Association, Wildlife Unlimited, and the Elks.

“I do a lot, but I’ve got two that I’m in love with. The others are nice, I wouldn’t give up any of them, but there’s two that’s got my heart,” said Bill.

The two programs that have captured the heart of the couple are Toys for Tots, which provides toys to less fortunate children at Christmastime, and the Dictionary Project, which strives to improve literacy by providing free dictionaries to third-grade students.

Bill and Janet have been active with Toys for Tots for a number of years, but it wasn’t until last year that Bill became the local coordinator for the program, which gave toys to 2,159 local children in 2012.

“We work with 17 organizations in Escanaba. We go out and raise the funds, solicit the toys, and work with the national headquarters to get toys,” said Bill.

The Toys for Tots program was started by the Marine Corps League and is the only program that is sponsored and authorized by the military that extends its services to those outside the military.

“We want to make sure that there’s not a child that we’re aware of that goes without a toy, and we’re fortunate enough with the community that we can give about four (toys per child),” said Bill.

In addition to making sure children have toys around the holidays, the LaMarches have worked to bring toys to children who have lost everything in fires.

“We go to the police; we give them teddy bears. Somebody’s house burns down and they’ve got little kids, they let us know; we give them toys. Is that part of protocol for (Toys for Tots)? I don’t know, but if you lose your house you’ve got nothing. It sure is nice if you get a little something,” said Bill.

While Toys for Tots is still a major focus in the LaMarches’ lives, it isn’t the only program that they work with that benefits children.

“We’ve got Toys for Tots, and we picked up our other love, the dictionary program,” said Bill.

The Dictionary Project has provided dictionaries to children nationwide since 1995, but it was only three years ago that Bill and George Peterson – who Bill refers to as “The Godfather of the Elks” – started the project through the Escanaba Elks Lodge 354.

“It took us about three years to figure out how to raise the money, because it costs about ($1,200) to $1,400 a year,” said Bill, adding that those numbers do not include the cost of the gasoline needed to deliver the dictionaries.

Every school with a third grade class in the Delta-Schoolcraft ISD benefits from the Elks’ Dictionary Project. Between all the districts, the LaMarches and other Elks members provide dictionaries to around 600 children each year.

“This year we’re going to be giving them jump ropes too, so we’ve got education and fitness,” said Bill.

Bill admits that when it comes to talking to the children, Janet is the gifted one.

“She takes to the kids like peanut butter on bread, so now she goes twice a week as a reading buddy,” said Bill.

While visiting a local school, Janet learned first hand the need for the Dictionary Project when a high school student told her he didn’t know how to use a dictionary.

“Now he’s in high school. They didn’t have the dictionary program (when he was in third grade), but I said, ‘Ask your brother. He’s got a dictionary. He’ll show you how to use it,'” said Janet.

For some, the use of cell phone apps and online dictionaries with search engines have replaced the paperback dictionary. However, many students have limited internet connectivity or computer access.

“You’ve got to learn how to use a dictionary. You don’t always carry a computer with you. A dictionary you can hold it and have it right here,” said Janet.

The toys and dictionaries also give children a sense of ownership, and put a smile on their face.

“If it puts a smile on the baby’s face or the child’s face it’s fantastic,” said Bill.