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AirVenture Benefits Oshkosh Community Nonprofit Organizations

By Barbara A. Schmitz

July 29, 2017 - In general, nonprofit organizations don’t have a lot of money. But, what they do usually have is an abundance of volunteers.

And that makes community organizations a perfect fit for EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, said EAA Director of Communications Dick Knapinski.

EAA provided fundraising and other opportunities for nonprofit organizations on the convention grounds for about 30 years, Knapinski said. Sacred Heart Church, which later merged with another parish and was renamed St. Jude the Apostle, was one of the first groups to begin selling concessions on-site.

Knapinski said EAA approached the parish long ago about using its nearby cemetery land for parking in exchange for the opportunity to sell concessions.

That first concession stand, consisting of just a tent and table, was in the parking lot of the cemetery, said the Rev. Matthew Simonar, St. Jude’s pastor who has spent much of the week working in the stand, which is now located near the EAA Bus Stop. “That first year we made $1,000, and we really wondered if all the work was worth it,” he said.

But the amount the Roman Catholic Church has earned has grown just as AirVenture has. Now, they net more than $35,000 during the weeklong convention, and Simonar is guessing they’ll even surpass that number this year.

“This is the second year we added breakfast, and on the fourth day, we already doubled the number of breakfasts we served over the first year,” he said. “Plus, we’re selling out of some items almost every night.”

But Simonar said it isn’t so much about the money they make through concessions, but rather about the people who volunteer there and the visitors they meet. “This is an opportunity for our parishioners to socialize and have fun,” he said. “It really brings the parish together as people have time to laugh, talk, and meet people from all over the U.S. and world. Even if we were still making just $1,000, it would be worth it.”

About 200 volunteer shifts need to be filled throughout the week, he said, and this year they even turned people away who wanted to help. Some people will work multiple shifts, while others bring in family or friends from out of town to help.

Knapinski said sometimes they approach other organizations for opportunities, and sometimes community organizations approach them. For about the past five years, several nonprofit organizations, such as the Oshkosh YMCA, Mid-Morning Kiwanis, and JDRF, have profited from the beverage carts scattered throughout the grounds and manned by volunteers, he said.

YMCA President and CEO Tom Blaze said they have had no difficulty finding the 55 or 60 volunteers needed to man two carts for the week.

“Some of the volunteers are members, and some are staff. But that’s the nice thing about it,” he said. “It gives our staff an opportunity to get to know members they normally don’t interact with on their job.”

Many volunteers enjoy it so much, they come back year after year, Tom said. “It’s just fun being on the EAA grounds with so many diverse people. Everyone is open and friendly, and there is so much going on at EAA, from exhibits, to lectures, to air shows. A sense of electricity permeates the grounds.”

Tom said the YMCA typically makes $10,000 or more during the event. “We feel fortunate to be invited back year each, and we don’t take this opportunity for granted,” he said.

Michelle Wihlm, a member of the Mid-Morning Kiwanis Club of Oshkosh, agreed. Her group has been running two beverage carts for four years on the AirVenture grounds.

She said they also need about 50 volunteers for the week, most of which are members of the club, or spouses or children of members. “But we actually have community people who also volunteer to help out because AirVenture is such a fun place to be,” Michelle said.

For many volunteers, working the beverage cart is a good excuse to spend a lot of time at the fly-in convention, she added. Plus, it allows the Kiwanis to earn some money, usually about $7,000, to support its causes. “Most of the money we raise stays in the Oshkosh community,” Michelle said. “The majority goes to grants to the Oshkosh schools and to support the children of Oshkosh.”

This year, Oshkosh Rotarians provided volunteers for EAA’s Gathering of Eagles and a work weekend in July. In exchange, EAA supplied a facility for their annual Flying Rotarians lunch, Knapinski said. “We have always supplied a facility for their luncheon, but the demands of our spaces have grown to such a point that we couldn’t do that under our old arrangement,” he said. “We wanted to work out something that was equitable and still allow it to happen.”

EAA Director of Finance Tony Wihlm said EAA also gives donations to other nonprofit groups that provide volunteers for parking or cleanup after events.

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