The 2019 Crow Wing County Outstanding Senior Volunteers are a study in contrasting personalities -- one characterized by joyful acceptance of public recognition, while the other shies away from the limelight. Yet both serve as models of volunteerism and self-sacrifice.
The recipients were announced Wednesday, July 17, during The Center’s annual picnic. Jeanne Larson of Brainerd was named the female Crow Wing County Outstanding Senior Volunteer and Lowell Johnson of Little Falls was named the male Crow Wing County Outstanding Senior Volunteer award winner.
In discussions with the Dispatch, both recipients said they had a feeling they’d won when the Center’s director, DeAnn Barry, hinted both volunteers were born in 1948, five days apart in June.
“Oh,” Johnson said he thought excitedly at the time. “Looks like its a pretty good chance it’ll be me.”
“That’s when I knew,” Larson said with a laugh. “I thought, ‘Oh no!’”
The outstanding senior volunteer award looks to honor people aged 65 or older in Crow Wing County, individuals with a proven track-record of selfless activism and work throughout the Brainerd lakes area.
Those statements, along with others, speak to the different kinds of people who find themselves working the soup kitchens, the kindergarten reading programs; the ones who pitch in at the senior living centers and youth centers, who give of themselves every day of the week and six ways to Sunday.
“It really came as a complete surprise. I’m very honored with this recognition, but I also don’t like to call a lot of attention to myself,” Larson said. “I love attention, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes it’s a little hard.”
“Both flabbergasted and elated,” Johnson said of the accolade. “It’s good to be recognized for your work. I’m thrilled.”
A fixture of the Brainerd lakes area, Larson said it’s a deeply heartfelt affection for the region that drives her to work in various volunteer activities, so busy that she’s “never home.”
“I love Brainerd. I really do,” said Larson, who confessed with a chuckle that she’s never been good at saying no -- a problem that’s only gotten worse with time. “If there’s any way to give back, I do.”
She said the nomination was submitted by staffers and friends at Breath of Life Adult Day Services. Larson iterated at multiple points that her husband, Bob Larson, was just as worthy a candidate as she was -- though, along with a desire to give of themselves, both husband and wife share a general aversion to the spotlight or speeches.
Spending four days a week at Gregory Park to facilitate games and working constantly at the Center, Larson is a former board member of the Northland Arboretum and still volunteers as a weeder. She’s currently a board member at the Crossing Arts Alliance. And, on top of that, Larson said she contributes to Meals on Wheels, with winter time trips to the Dakotas to serve as snowshoe guides for the blind as a side project.
“That’s really, really exciting. I learn so much from them,” Larson said. “Everything that I do is because I have a support staff of friends that never tell me no. that’s the biggest thing. They’ve been so helpful over the years and the many crazy things we’ve encountered.”
In terms of volunteerism and giving back to communities, Larson advised people to make the proactive choice -- just do it, she said, friendships, a greater sense of well-being and a litany of other personal benefits will come.
“Just step in,” she said. “Never be afraid of making mistakes. Most places, we’re free help and most organizations really couldn’t function without volunteers. People are just grateful to have you. It’s always good to give back.”
Describing them as “various kinds of efforts,” Johnson pointed to a lifelong pursuit of volunteerism, particularly in the realms of child care, youth outreach and public education. Originally settled in Cambridge and commuting to White Bear Lake, Larson boasts a career in early childhood family education, often dealing with small children, facilitating parent support groups and lending a hand for students with disabilities.
Invoking a kind of proactive, upstream thinking, Larson noted it’s better to raise up troubled children and youths than to try to fix broken adults.
“My heart and my experience is working with young kids,” Larson said. “If you work with young children and families, you can prevent all kinds of problems from happening later on in life. Addiction. Violence. Emotional abuse. It’s all rooted in what happens with children in their early years.”
After retiring and moving up to the Brainerd lakes area in the mid-1990s, Larson couldn’t shake the itch to serve and help -- though, he’d be the first to tell you that for all he contributes through his talents, time and treasure, he’s the real beneficiary in the deal. He’s become a constant in everything from church-related initiatives, to Brainerd Lakes Area Early Childhood Coalition, the Minnesota's Father & Families Network, a mental fitness goal group at Crow Wing Energized, and ACEs resilience group, as well as helping out at the Shop youth center and the local Elks Lodge.
In terms of volunteering, Johnson said it’s a natural impulse for many -- especially at different stages of life -- to seek activities that are meaningful and enable people to give back to communities that have supported them throughout their lives. As a word of advice, he said prospective volunteers should take a chance -- make the leap.
“It doesn’t take that much, they’re relatively easy. They’re not huge commitments and you’re able to establish your own boundaries,” Johnson said. “Small actions can make a huge distance. Just try it. Go out and do it and see if it works. Not every volunteer opportunity is going to work, but just about everyone should be able to find something that fits.”