Kathy Rossow steps down after three decades

Published 2:16 am Thursday, March 23, 2006

By By ANDY HAMILTON / Niles Daily Star
NILES - The job was only supposed to last a couple years. After that, Kathy Rossow figured she would go back to teaching high school English.
It was nearly three decades ago when the Niles Service League put Rossow in charge of a volunteer clearinghouse. When she started in 1977, she was using a Ritter's Tomato Juice carton as a filing cabinet.
It's now 28 years later. The Volunteer Center of Southwest Michigan has moved twice, the staff of one is now six, and, the woman responsible for leading the charge is ready to retire.
During Rossow's tenure of executive director, the volunteer center's network has grown to cover the tri-county area and beyond.
Rossow said the center works with 260 non-profit organizations, 50 faith communities, more than 30 businesses and all of the school districts in the surrounding area. Just a few of the duties performed through the center include mentoring children and assisting low-income elderly citizens, as well as the homeless and the hungry.
As a result, the Niles native and Buchanan resident said the volunteer center coordinates a large variety of activities that somehow fall under the same umbrella.
Actually getting people to understand exactly what the volunteer center offers is quite a difficult and regular task, Rossow said. It's not the job of the center to make people better. They just put them in a position to improve a situation for someone else.
A perfect example occurred after a tornado ripped along Niles-Buchanan Highway in the late 1990s, Rossow said. City workers had to tend to destroyed electric lines, but there were limited resources left to clear tree branches and debris scattered across people's lawns, Rossow said.
That was where the volunteer center stepped in to organize some help. Rossow said the center did a quick survey of the homes that would need the most work, particularly those with elderly residents who may need an extra hand.
It was only a short time later the Tornado Busters were formed - a group of 25 people with chain saws and hand-held saws who began combing the city for fallen trees.
Rossow decided to elevate her work to the national level in the mid-1990s when she ran for the National Council of Volunteer Centers. She was successful in earning that position and in 1997, she was elected to the national chair of the council.
Rossow said she would fly to Washington, D.C. every few months while on the council to work with the Points of Light Foundation, which engages millions of volunteers on local levels.
The national organizations then began partnering with local volunteer centers, Rossow said.
Together, the local centers have a national influence through the councils in Washington, D.C. and Points of Light has local destinations to deliver all the national volunteers, Rossow said.
Catering to the volunteer before anything else has been a goal of the center all along. Rossow said they tend to hang on to a volunteer longer if people are doing something they love.
Part of the process of making enough people available at the right times is getting the agencies and businesses to provide enough notice, which Rossow said is about three weeks.
What the volunteer center has been able to do under Rossow's watch is develop programs for people who are interested in donating their time and energy, but do not have the desired volunteer opportunities available to them.
Rossow said she received a call one day asking if the volunteer center provided people with training for participation on a board of directors.
Sometimes, Rossow said, the volunteer center has had to ask people to veer off their desired task a little bit in order to help a group out. People who wished to volunteer by rocking babies in the hospital maybe had to mentor children a little older or spend time with other patients instead.
Regardless of the situation, Rossow said she is constantly impressed at the natural generosity of the people in Southwest Michigan.
Being a first-hand witness to so many people wanting to help in the community has made every part of working at the volunteer center a reward, Rossow said.
It won't be too long before her daily activities include spending time with her husband Jerry and their five grandchildren, including a June trip to Disney World.
New ideas may result in new directions, but Rossow's work will always be the foundation. She may not have necessarily made the volunteer center, but she definitely made it better.