Longtime Rockford resident Elizabeth Graunke was honored with the 2016 Volunteer of the Year award last week.
On the plaque given to her by Rockford Mayor Renee Hafften is an abridged version of her service to the community she has been in all of her life. It reads: “In appreciation for your community spirit with the Rockford-Greenfield Area Chamber of Commerce, Rocktoberfest, the Rockford River Days and many other volunteer activities.”
The unabridged version is a little longer, and still not exhaustive of those “many other volunteer activities.” Along with serving as President of the Chamber of Commerce, her efforts with River Days, and heading security at Rocktoberfest, she coaches two Rockford Area School sports teams, volunteers for United Way, and serves as the secretary of Village Church’s Awana program in Maple Plain, where her children take religious education classes.
There are two reasons why Graunke is often signing up to help every organization she can. The first is family. “My mom was the runner and my dad was the volunteer,” Graunke says. Even though both parents worked full time, her father Randy Patnode managed to be an active Lion’s Club member and coach for her sports teams.
Years later, the parallel is obvious with Graunke. She has coached her daughter’s basketball and softball teams for the past five years, and not-so-subtly nudged her husband, Bill, into becoming a Lion alongside her father and brother.
Whether it was community outreach in mind or just an opportunity to force him to spend time with his in-laws remains to be seen, but Bill often doesn’t take a sideline to Elizabeth’s volunteering. In fact, much of Graunke’s commitments eventually become a tag-team with her husband. After accepting her award at the council meeting, Graunke led her speech with, “Usually every time that I go to volunteer, I come home and let him know what I’m volunteering for and let him know he’s going to be right behind me.”
The two, both lifelong residents of Rockford, began dating at 16. They have a daughter Makayla, 13, and two sons William, 11, and Bradley, 9. The Graunkes have continued the tradition of instilling the importance of volunteering to their own kids; she has them participate in the River Days Can Smash, the cross country annual 5k fundraiser, and others.
The second reason Graunke always seems to have a hand in everything is because of her longs-tanding residence. Graunke has lived in Rockford all her life, which comes with the perk of knowing your neighbors pretty well. It also comes with a lot of suggestions from those neighbors, namely suggestions that sound like “Hey, you should join the [insert community organization here]!” Graunke attributes most of her new volunteer commitments beginning with that phrase or something similar. “My real problem might be that I don’t know how to say no,” she laughs.
Regardless, members of the community were able to thank her fully at the council meeting. Among a pool of four candidates nominated by fellow Rockfordites, including the Rockford Lions, the Bankwest employees, and Annette Tryon (among others, the figurehead of the fast-approaching Crow River Serve Day) it was Graunke who was chosen.
“We wish we had a hundred more of you,” said Mayor Haffton, who added with a smile: “especially on River Days.”
Graunke ended her small acceptance speech with a special shout out to her employers, Steve and Shirley of Bankwest. “It’s a great company to work for,” she said. “They encourage me to be out in the community, active. Their motto is ‘Building a legacy of caring’ and they truly do.” Graunke said that some days are a challenge, but Bankwest has always been understanding of her commitments to the community. Bankwest serves Rockford, Hanover, and Buffalo, and Graunke says all three locations have created strong ties to their respective communities.
When it come to managing all that she does, Graunke has no advice. “I don’t really know how I do it,” she says. “Sometimes I want to pull my hair out.”
Regardless of how she feels on any given day, Graunke will almost always still be out there, engaging her hometown. As she says it, “It’s great to be out in the community, making Rockford a fun place to live and work in.”