Harley Ellis is used to helping others as a retired nurse practitioner, so volunteering has become second nature to him.

Ellis said he knew something was up when he spotted his sisters Monday, Oct. 19, at The Center in Brainerd. But even the Brainerd resident was surprised when he was named the Outstanding Senior Volunteer of the Year by the Brainerd Jaycees and Brainerd Community Action.

“It’s humbling,” Ellis said after the honor was announced while holding an engraved plaque with his name on it at The Center, an activities center for seniors.

Derived from the Ten Outstanding Young Americans program, and the long history of Brainerd Community Action’s Citizen of the Year, the Distinguished Service Awards typically honors 10 individuals annually. Ellis was the first award recipient this year for his volunteer work.

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“I want to give back,” he said. “I do the prayer quilt ministry. We make quilts for people who have major illnesses like cancer, Lou Gehrig’s (disease) — whatever. Each knot in the quilt is a prayer for that person and their family and the medical people taking care of them.”

The Brainerd Jaycees and Brainerd Community Action have partnered once again this year, along with a variety of other nonprofit organizations, to identify the honorees.

“Harley is a second-generation volunteer here. His mom was a card recycler. Harley does card recycling and quilt-making (with) a prayer quilter group here,” The Center Executive Director DeAnn Barry told the group at The Center before Ellis was recognized for his volunteerism.

Outstanding Senior Volunteer of the Year Harley Ellis show his flowers and balloons to visitors at The Center Monday, Oct. 19, at The Center. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
Outstanding Senior Volunteer of the Year Harley Ellis show his flowers and balloons to visitors at The Center Monday, Oct. 19, at The Center. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

The Center’s Card Recyclers Group would take an individual’s donated used greeting cards and make a totally new card out of it, according to Barry, but the group’s activities have temporarily ceased due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“The front and message from the inside are cut out, glued on accent paper … and glued again on linen card stock. The recycled cards and matching linen envelopes are sold for only 50 cents in our gift shop. Each recycled greeting card is a work of art,” Barry explained after the award ceremony.

Distinguished Service Awards week continues with the yearly awards for Outstanding Citizen of the Year; Outstanding Community Service Provider of the Year; Outstanding Nonprofit of the Year; Outstanding Young Citizen of the Year; Outstanding Youth Volunteer of the Year; Outstanding Educator of the Year; and Outstanding Agribusiness of the Year.

“There are years Harley has logged over 2,000 volunteer hours. My famous quote from Harley is, ‘I’m sorry I’m late,’ and I keep reminding him that as a volunteer, ‘You don’t get to be late. It is OK,’ so congratulations, Harley, on behalf of the board of directors and myself, the other volunteers at The Center — outstanding,” Barry said.

The raucous laughter and heartfelt applause from those in attendance continued just before the congratulatory cake was served and Ellis received a bouquet of flowers.

“He’s always been a good example for me and for my brother of giving of ourselves to help other people. I mean that’s part of the reason I became a therapist,” Jesse Ellis, one of Harley Ellis’ sons, said after the award presentation. “He just loves people, and he gets along with them very well.”

The 43-year-old from St. Paul was one of many masked well-wishers at The Center who mobbed the seemingly tongue-tied 68-year-old man and celebrated him as the man of the hour.

“His parents kind of set that example, too, of volunteering. His mom used to volunteer here for years. His dad was also volunteering, doing like Meals on Wheels,” Jesse Ellis said of his father and grandparents.

Brianna McKibbens of the Brainerd Jaycees is the 2020 chairperson of the Distinguished Service Awards. Due to COVID-19, the traditional awards banquet honoring the recipients will not take place and instead recipients will be surprised individually, such as at The Center.

“Normally, with the Distinguished Service Awards, they get a big banquet, so we (still) wanted to make this year special for them,” McKibbens said. “We got a local restaurant to sponsor each award and give a gift certificate, so they can take their family out to dinner.”

Brainerd Community Action, in partnership with the Brainerd Jaycees, accepted nominations earlier this year for the annual Distinguished Service Awards.

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchFL.