United We Stand, 20 years later
On the morning of September 11, 2001, a dozen or so volunteers gathered in our basement. They were at our office in Onalaska learning the ins and outs of Great Rivers United Way – knowledge they would share while making campaign presentations on our behalf.
Upstairs, the radio was on. Music and the morning news were playing in the background when suddenly, regularly scheduled programming was interrupted by a DJ saying that something had happened in New York City. Staff turned on an office TV just as the second plane hit.
Our annual Campaign Kick-Off Breakfast was set to take place on September 12. We considered cancelling, but ultimately decided that this event was a much-needed opportunity for our community to come together during this difficult time. What is typically a celebratory event was transformed into a much more somber affair, complete with red, white, and blue table cloths and napkins.
We began with a moment of silence. Then, a heartfelt invocation honored those who had lost their lives. In an unplanned act of patriotism, 2001-02 Campaign Chair Dave Trapp stood up and led the whole room in the singing of “God Bless America,” a spontaneous moment that remains etched in the hearts of the staff who were there.
Like others in our community, our country, and across the world, Great Rivers United Way staff felt a mix of emotions, including anger and fear. We questioned why this had happened, and from 1,071 miles away, we wondered what we could do to help while simultaneously feeling very helpless.
Our office started receiving phone calls right away. People wanted to help, and they saw us a resource for doing so. We knew, at a minimum, that our United Way had the capacity to serve as a clearing house for donations, just as we have more recently for flood and COVID-19 relief. The local media knew this, too, and they reached out to partner with us.
“United We Stand,” a September 11 Fund donation drive, took place on October 11, 2001. For 13 hours on a warm and sunny fall day, WKBT-TV, WXOW-TV, WLAX-TV, KQEG-TV, La Crosse Radio Group, Family Radio Group, the La Crosse Tribune, and Charter Communications – with help from Community Credit Union, Collins Sign Company, and CenturyTel – pooled their collective power with a unified message.
With collection sites at the La Crosse Center and the Onalaska Omni Center, the public came out all day long to participate in the event. Both radio groups had live remotes from the sites all day, and the television stations conducted interviews for their newscasts. The Tribune promoted and covered the event.
Local response to help those in need was overwhelming. Children who had been saving for a special purchase brought coins in baggies. The student senate at one of our middle schools donated $500 from its school enhancement fund. An area bank pledged $1 for every guestbook signature they received, and $5,000 was raised.
Nearly $33,000 was raised during the one-day event. In total, Coulee Region residents donated $44,478.39 to the Fund. In addition, hundreds of messages of encouragement, sympathy, and patriotism were sent from the Coulee Region out East.
To say that a lot has changed in 20 years is an understatement. We will never forget September 11, 2001. We will never forget how our community came together following that tragedy – and others since it – and we are thankful that Great Rivers United Way continues to be looked at as a source of hope and help.