SD Farmers Union recognizes rural volunteers with 2020 Rural Dakota Pride Awards

Lura Roti
South Dakota Farmers Union

South Dakota Farmers Union has announced its 2020 Rural Dakota Pride Award honorees recognizing people who give back to their communities.

Those honored include Connie and Allen Hoeft of Stratford, Holly Bauer of Whitewood, Sharon Peterson of De Smet, Jenny Wilk of Huron and Joyce Heath of Winner.

“Without citizens willing to volunteer their time, our rural communities cannot survive. Our organization thanks all who give of their time and talents to support South Dakota’s rural communities,” says Karla Hofhenke, South Dakota Farmers Union executive director.

As a grassroots organization that serves South Dakota’s family farmers and ranchers, Doug Sombke, SDFU president, says Farmers Union recognizes the important role strong rural communities play in supporting agriculture producers and their families.

Stratford couple vital to community theater

Tickets for the Stratford Community Theater go on sale the first Saturday each December. Even though there are nine performances, they sell out in three hours.

More than entertainment, these annual performances provide cast and crew members with something fun to do during the winter months and an opportunity for family, friends and neighbors to get together and reconnect in March.

“It’s something we all look forward to – being with people, laughing, having a good time, especially now that Stratford no longer has a bar. That was where a whole bunch of us would go each week for supper, to visit and to play games,” explains Connie Hoeft, who together with her husband, Allen, are among the many volunteers who make the event possible since the Stratford Community Theater began nearly 30 years ago.

Since its inception, Allen’s carpentry talents were relied upon to help build elaborate sets while Connie helped develop the menu, prepare food and do dishes for the more than 120 theater-goers, volunteers and cast members during each of the nine performances.

“We begin preparing a couple months before the show. I enjoy the time together with the cast and other volunteers,” Connie says.

Much of the proceeds raised go to fund six $1,000 scholarships for area youth.

“We always enjoyed giving back to the people of Stratford,” Connie says.

March 2020 was the first year Connie volunteered without Allen, who died in January. “Allen could do most anything. They would come up with an idea of how the set should look and he would figure out how to do it,” she says. “He mentored two gentlemen who do the sets now. He told them they could come over to his shop and use anything they needed. I keep the shop open for them.”

Kristi Brunes, who volunteers as the community theater director and owns a local business, she says it really takes a whole community of volunteers to make the event happen. She says Allen is missed. “He did everything – from act in the play to build sets and all the little handiwork. He could figure out most anything. If we needed someone to jump on stage, he would jump on stage too. He would do whatever it took. He left a big hole.”

Brunes adds that over the years, the community theater has contributed more than $400,000 to the Stratford Community. Its funds covered the costs of two additions to the Community Hall which include a new stage, kitchen and restrooms. “Allen and Connie have been a big part of the theater since the beginning. Allen was the ramrod on both building projects.”

A family affair for Connie and Allen, this year their son and grandson were servers and daughter-in-law acted in the play. “It is wonderful to see one generation going into another generation, and hopefully another generation being involved in the play,” Connie says. “And it’s fun to see the local talent. You’d be surprised what these farmers can do once they make up their minds to be in a play.”

Her family is another reason Connie enjoys giving back to the Stratford community. “Stratford was good for raising children. When my kids were growing up, they would play outside with all the neighbor kids. They would play ball all summer and everyone would watch out for everyone else’s kids. We give back because of the people of Stratford. They are really good people.”

The couple raised five children – four sons and a daughter in Stratford. Today, two of their sons and a granddaughter live close by.

Connie and Allen have lived in the Stratford community for 59 years. When their kids were young, Allen ran a local gas station and farmed. He then went to work in Aberdeen for Firestone. Connie was the Warner school bus driver for 30 years.

Active in the community since they were first married, the couple helped prepare for the annual Fourth of July picnic and parade by mowing the streets and Allen served on the town board and was chief of the volunteer fire department.

In retirement, the couple remained actively involved in the community and serve as honorary grandparents to many of Stratford’s youngest citizens. “Papa Al always had ice cream for all the kids. So, Grandma Connie has that responsibility now. When things were shut down, the Schwan’s Man sure missed visiting our house.”

Volunteer fire department work ‘a family thing’

If you ask Holly Bauer about the volunteer work she does as a member of the Whitewood Volunteer Fire Department Auxillary, she says simply, “It’s a family thing.”

“I remember when I was little, my dad was a member of the volunteer fire department. My brother is the assistant chief, he’s been on the department for 18 years. My sister is involved in the auxillary with me and my brother-in-law is a volunteer firefighter as well,” she explains.

Family is also the reason, when her husband, Eric, retired from the Air Force the couple returned to her hometown, the small Northern Hills community of Whitewood. “My whole family lives here,” she explains. “We’re a close-knit community, everyone knows everyone and if something goes wrong, the whole town knows and will be there to help.”

Helping citizens and supporting firefighters when fire occurs is the focus of the auxiliary. The nine-member team is relied upon when the volunteers are called to a fire. They provide meals to the firefighters and valuable support to the families impacted. Because Bauer and two other members are Red Cross certified, the organization allows them to provide Red Cross Care Comfort kits. The kits contain hygiene essentials as well as a debit card to help pay for clothes, food and lodging for a few days following a house fire.

“You show up to a house fire and the family is in chaos. They are losing everything they own – just watching it burn down. So, when you can give them a kit of necessary supplies and a debit card to help pay for clothes, food and lodging for a couple nights, the relief on their face is priceless,” Bauer explains.

More than food and comfort, the auxiliary worked four years to raise funds necessary for the department to purchase an 8-by-13 rehab trailer. The enclosed trailer contains rehab gear, misting fan and four cooling vests that work to prevent heat exhaustion by cooling a firefighter’s core after they have been working inside a burning structure. At $1,000 a vest, the vests are a valuable tool not many volunteer departments are able to afford, so the Whitewood Department shares their rehab trailer with other Northern Hills community’s volunteer departments.

“It is heartwarming knowing that the work you did to raise money can help so many.”

More than helping community members in times of need, the auxiliary also hosts an annual, community-wide Easter Egg Hunt for nearly 300 local youth. In addition to candy-filled eggs, kids also receive gifts donated from local businesses.

Accomplishing all this takes a lot of volunteer hours. In 2019, Bauer, who also runs the volunteer fire department and auxiliary Facebook pages, logged more than 250 hours. When asked why she makes time to give back, in addition to her full-time career in health care she says, “I enjoy helping my community.”

Wilks help honor SD veterans

When Jenny Wilk’s dad, Red Wilk, returned home from two tours in Vietnam, the Marine stepped off the plane into Los Angeles International Airport and was spit upon. He rushed into a bathroom and changed out of his uniform into civilian clothes.

Nearly 30 years later, the experience inspires Wilk to help her dad honor South Dakota’s veterans, giving them the welcome home, they deserve. Each year, during the State Fair Bull Bash, Wilk organizes the Red Wilk Construction American Hero Award ceremony. Since 2003, 300 South Dakota veterans have been recognized for their service to our country.

“My dad is one of the most generous people I have ever known. He is always helping those less fortunate,” she says, explaining that there are many times when they are reviewing nomination forms together, that a veteran’s experience will trigger a similar memory that her dad will then share with her. “Working on the American Hero Award project together has definitely brought us closer. He is my best friend.”

Planning for the American Hero Award ceremony begins months ahead of time. Wilk sends nominated veterans’ questions, asking them to share their wartime experiences and thoughts on patriotism.

Wilk spends hours organizing a ceremony that truly honors each veteran. During the ceremony, the rodeo announcer introduces each veteran and shares their story with the more than 4,000 rodeo attendees. The South Dakota Honor National Guard Funeral Honors Team presents each veteran with a flag which was flown over the nation’s Capitol in their honor. The Wilk family also presents each veteran with a commemorative coin they custom designed for the ceremony. The South Dakota governor and congressional leaders also attend to thank veterans. Taps are played to honor soldiers missing in action and those who lost their lives in service.

“One of the most heartwarming moments is when each veteran is saluted by the Honor Guard in their dress blues. That moment is just for them. Many of the Vietnam veterans cry because this is the welcome home they never received,” Wilk explains.

Even though she’s only 32, giving back is something Wilk grew up doing. Her grandma is Jan Manolis and she started the Jan Manolis Family Safe Center for victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault. Her mom, Cindy, volunteers time to help victims and Wilk carries the emergency phone a few times a month.

“I grew up watching my dad, mom and grandma give back. We are a family who is passionate about helping others.”

Wilk explains that even the Bull Bash, where the American Hero ceremony is held, is the family’s way of giving back to the community of Huron. Fifteen years ago, when it was decided the South Dakota State Fair would not continue hosting a rodeo, her dad wanted to do something to help keep the state sport alive and well at the State Fair. So, he launched what would become the Red Wilk Construction/Tuff Hedeman Bull Bash.

When Wilk joined the family’s construction business after college, her dad handed the organization of the event which draws a crowd of up to 6,000 over to her. “I’ve always loved rodeo,” says Wilk, who also serves as secretary of the Heartland 4-H Rodeo. “I feel fortunate that because I work in my family’s business, and because my family is also passionate about rodeo and supporting veterans, I am able to spend some work hours volunteering.”

Wilk also volunteers her time serving on the Beadle County Humane Society Board of Directors. In this role, she helps organize several fundraisers. Her favorite is the Four Paws Pool Party. Held the day after the Huron Water Park has closed, dog owners can donate money and let their four-pawed best friends enjoy some splash and pool time.

“I love animals. It stems from my love of horses and rodeo,” Wilk explains. Wilk and her boyfriend, Bryse Letsche, share their home with three dogs: Walter, Daphne and Camielle.

Winner woman can’t say no

If you need to reach Joyce Heath, you’d better call her cell phone because the Winner volunteer and small business owner is always on the go.

“I guess I don’t know how to say ‘no’ and I just love making people happy. There are so many things that need volunteers’ help in a small town,” explains Heath, who has lived in Winner her entire life except for the year she attended beauty school in Sioux Falls. Since returning home 54 years ago, she has operated Joyce’s Hair Styling, raised her family and actively volunteered for the Winner community.

Inspired by her mom, also an active volunteer, Sedonia Wagner, Heath joined the Catholic Daughters, St. Mary’s Chapter 54 years ago. Today, she serves as Regent. Focused on supporting their church, the St. Mary’s Catholic Daughters saw a large need to remodel their church event hall and kitchen. They reached out to community members and secured enough funds through donations and sponsorships of stained-glass windows and plaques to complete the remodel.

Today, the St. Mary’s Hall serves the entire Winner community. It is the go-to location for wedding receptions, reunions, the annual academic banquet and junior/senior prom banquet. Nearly 30 years ago now, Heath began organizing the prom banquet with the help of parent volunteers. She lets the Prom Committee choose the menu – which nearly always includes her famous cheesy hash brown dish.

“I like cooking big meals and it’s fun to be a part of the kids’ excitement,” explains Heath, who also opens up her home for all family holidays and birthdays.

Her family is one of many reasons Heath enjoys giving back to the Winner community. “I raised my kids here. Then I had a couple grandkids who came and spent every summer with me as they were growing up and now, I have three great-grandkids who live in town,” she says.

She is currently teaching her great-granddaughter, Peyton, how to sew through 4-H sewing. Peyton continues a tradition of sewing. Heath’s mom made all her clothing growing up. Heath learned how to sew from her mom, and in 2006 decided to join the local quilting guild so she could learn how to make star quilts. Since that time, she has made five and volunteers her time helping the guild host its bi-annual quilting show and teaching 4-H members how to quilt.

“We need to teach youth how to sew and get them interested in quilting so that there will be a guild in the future,” she says.

In addition to helping youth learn how to sew, as a member of the local Elk’s Lodge Doe group, she helps raise funds to support LifeScapes which provides therapies and other services to children and adults with special needs. Their largest fundraiser is the Winner Elk’s Rodeo concession stand.

“The funds we raise also go to help community members after a fire or to help them with gas money when they need to travel for medical care due to cancer,” she says.

A gal with energy to spare, when she isn’t volunteering, cutting and styling hair in her salon or at the local assisted living or nursing home, Heath can be found driving around the local golf course on her pink golf cart – sometimes accompanied by Peyton.

De Smet woman helps commemorate local heroes

For years, De Smet native, Sharon J. Peterson had heard community members say it would be nice to commemorate local veterans with statues on the courthouse lawn.

Not one to wait for others when something needs to be done in her community, Peterson took action. “I put an ad in the newspaper and asked for donations and they came pouring in.”

The result of Peterson’s organization and generous community donations is a veterans park where all can take a few moments to pay their respects to local heroes and reflect upon their service to our country. “Veterans have always had a special place in my heart. My husband, dad, brother and uncles have all served,” she explains. “Veterans play a big part in this country, so it is nice that our community can be reminded of the sacrifices they made.”

Peterson tears up as she visits about her appreciation for veterans, apologizes and shares what those who know and love her already know, “my tears are always close to my eyelids.”

Even before she retired from a nearly 40-year career working for the Farmers Home Administration, Peterson began sharing her many talents, hobbies and passions with De Smet. De Smet has always been her home.

A historian and vocalist with a knack for writing, Peterson has written musicals together with her husband, Rollo. She has then directed local talent to put on performances community members can enjoy during special events like De Smet’s annual Old Settlers Day. She also served as stage manager for the Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant.

Peterson combines her interest in history with her hobby of antique collecting to put together historically informative window displays in Main Street businesses and the local library. Her displays provide information on everything from antique wedding dresses and dishes to antique aprons and more.

Working to protect local history, Peterson has spent hours cataloguing antiques for the local city museum – some paid and some volunteer. She also puts on historical programming around her collections.

“I just think it’s good to be reminded of where we come from. By showing antiques you can do this,” explains Peterson, who also served as co-chair of De Smet’s South Dakota Centennial Committee.

Whether it is local history or fairy tales, Peterson enjoys bringing stories to life. For more than 30 years, De Smet kindergarteners have gotten to know her as Pricilla Pilgrim, Mrs. Claus, Mrs. McGregor, Mother Goose and Larry Leprechaun. And to encourage youth to read, she designs displays for the local library. She has also been quite active in the United Methodist Church, serving in several local and conference offices.

Volunteer activities and projects, she explains, are her “bailiwick” “it’s my thing to do.”

In 2018, the De Smet community recognized Peterson and Rollo for their contributions, asking the couple to serve as Marshalls for the Old Settler’s Day Parade

Allen and Connie Hoeft
Since the beginning of the Stratford Community Theater, Connie and Allen Hoeft were depended upon. Allen’s carpentry talents were relied upon to help build elaborate sets while Connie helped develop the menu, prepare food and do dishes for the more than 120 theater-goers, volunteers and cast members during each of the nine performances.
South Dakota Farmers Union honored Holly Bauer of Whitewood with Rural Dakota Pride Award. She’s a volunteer firefighter.
South Dakota Farmers Union honored Jenny Wilk, right, of Huron with Rural Dakota Pride Award. She’s pictured with her dad, Red Wilk. Each year, during the State Fair Bull Bash, Jenny Wilk organizes the Red Wilk Construction American Hero Award ceremony.
South Dakota Farmers Union honored Joyce Heath of Winner with Rural Dakota Pride Award.
Sharon and Rollo Peterson.
The result of Sharon J. Peterson’s organization.