If you’ve been to The River on a Friday night in the past six years, you’ve met Justin. He describes himself as a “people person” and his wide smile and welcoming attitude are contagious. Alongside his parents Phil and Kathy, the Wuests have been at The River for quite some time. Sometimes as clients, sometimes as volunteers, but always as helping hands.
Initially, the family came to The River as clients. Kathy, a career legal advisor, and Phil, a military veteran and former Oscar Mayer worker, needed nutritional assistance. Kathy was diagnosed with a rare blood disorder and her medical needs had caused her career to take a backseat.
“When we need The River, there’s a variety in the food and nutrition offered here,” Kathy said. “The community meals also help when we’re in a bind.” For the first year, The River helped them get their footing in the wake of her unexpected diagnosis. From stocking shelves, helping outside, preparing bags, and everything in between, the Wuests started to give back as regular volunteers. “There’s a wide variety of things to do here,” Phil said when recounting their history with The River.
After giving back through volunteering, the Wuests were faced with another challenge, one that affected many people in the Northside community. In 2015, Oscar Mayer announced they were closing their Madison facility and Phil, after working there for 24 years, was out of work. “It hit people hard,” he said. At this same time, Phil began to experience heart problems and their medical expenses started rising.
“After Oscar Mayer closed, it affected the whole community. The need for The River was huge,” Phil said. While the family worked to get back on their feet in the face of medical and economic challenges, they were always willing to help their neighbors. “Volunteering here gets you out of the house. It gives you a sense of purpose,” Phil said.
Volunteering as a family has allowed the Wuests to grow closer together through hardships and they’ve made a great impression on everyone here. Justin is known around these parts for his great attitude and his nickname, Sheriff. “It started with an old family nickname and it just stuck,” said Kathy. Sheriff Justin can be found helping direct traffic outside and making sure clients are getting the help they need.
“I don’t have to worry about him when I am here,” Kathy said, referring to her son’s challenges with his developmental disability. “He’s gaining independence and using his connections here to grow in the community. Everyone here has been accepting and very accommodating of his needs.” Justin has fit in easily around The River and is always eager to help. “The people here have helped me cope and understand myself. It feels like family,” Justin said.
Even now, Kathy is recovering from a recent cataract surgery. Despite this, she still makes a point to come volunteer. “You can come here and get connected to what you need,” she said while helping to prepare for a shopping session. “It’s not just helping us, it’s helping the community.”
Throughout their times of need, the Wuests have continued to lend a hand. Now, the family is a fixture to many of the people here. As The River expands its operations and mission, the Wuests will always have a place with us. Their help has been invaluable these past years and Phil let us know that they don’t plan on going anywhere. “As long as we can, we will volunteer and connect with the community here.”
This story was originally featured in our Fully Nourished Community Newsletter.