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UAW/GM Food Drive is about helping, not mourning

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Stacy Vogel
December 21, 2008
— In many ways, it was a typical UAW/GM Food Drive, if bagging groceries for 350 families in about half an hour can ever be called typical.

Old friends greeted each other in the wee hours of the morning with smiles and hugs.


Teenagers rubbed sleep from their eyes and tried to look unimpressed while children, sugared up on doughnuts and cake, bounced around the loading dock at the Janesville General Motors plant Saturday.


But the hugs lasted a bit longer than normal, and there was sadness behind the smiles as volunteers acknowledged this is probably the last year the annual event will take place at the Janesville plant.


Still, workers are saving their sorrow at the end of SUV production in Janesville for Monday and Tuesday. Saturday, as volunteers pointed out again and again, was for helping the less fortunate.


“This is a really good event, especially with all the news going on,” said Randy Brasich, a 13-year veteran of the plant. “I just think it’s tremendous, this outpouring of help and goodwill.”


Brasich transferred to the Fort Wayne, Ind., plant in November, but he drove more than five hours to be in Janesville for the food drive. Other volunteers showed up despite not knowing where or if they will work after SUV production ends Tuesday.


“A lot of us are facing uncertainty in the future,” UAW Shop Chairman John Dohner Jr. told the volunteers. “A lot of people in the community already don’t have jobs. So it says a lot that … everybody could find it in their hearts to give back.”


Give back they did. The event raised nearly $20,000 this year, more than last year, organizer Marv Wopat said. The donations, along with more than $6,000 in donated and discounted goods from vendors, allowed the drive to collect six bags of groceries each for 350 Rock County families.


GM employees, the United Auto Workers and community members stepped up this year despite—or perhaps because of—tough times, said Kristy Kerl, wife of UAW Vice President Steve Kerl.


“Everybody’s trying to work together and save this community,” she said.


After about 28 years, the drive has become an efficient operation. Adults and children, line workers and management marched down the assembly line, loading the designated number of each item into Woodman’s grocery bags to the tune of Beach Boys Christmas carols.


Tables came down in a flash as the last of the food was bagged, and flatbed carts lined up to deliver the bags to trucks, SUVs and vans waiting outside. Those vehicles delivered the goods to needy families.


“It’s just chaos, but it does straighten out,” said organizer Nancy Nienhuis, a retired GM nurse known to everyone as “Nurse Nancy.”


Delivering the groceries makes Judy McRoberts, who has participated in the drive since the beginning, remember how much she has, she said.


“They’re really always very grateful,” she said.


The community needs the help now more than ever, organizers said. They’re already figuring out how to hold the event next year without the plant. Wopat vowed to hold the food drive in a parking lot if he had to.


“I know my family will be involved,” he said. “I know we’ll have the retirees …You get out there and tell people you need help, and they fall out of the woodwork… It’s too nice of a thing to lose in the community. We’re losing enough.”



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