Chamber members give back to community

By Roberta Codemo

“Springfield is such a giving community,” is the refrain echoed by local business owners. According to American Express, charitable giving by small businesses rose by 4.9 percent between 2012 and 2013. The Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce recently hosted a press conference to shine the spotlight on local businesses that give back.

“It was the chamber’s way to say thanks,” said Chris Hembrough, president and CEO, who plans to make this an annual event. “Folks miss the good work that businesses do. A lot of times the stories go untold.”

Part of what the Chamber does is economic development. Sangamon County, and Springfield in particular, are great places to live, raise a family and do business. When businesses are looking at relocating here, this is a good way to showcase the community because it highlights businesses that care.

“I hope and wish this inspires others to greater levels of generosity,” said Hembrough.

When the economy took a downturn in 2008, Hanson Information Systems, Inc., decided to make a donation to the Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln in lieu of purchasing Christmas gifts for their customers that year. “It seemed the money would be much better spent helping those within our community,” said company president Karen Pletsch.

“The response from our customers was very positive,” added client communications specialist Jennifer Schultz. “They were pleasantly surprised.”

The company continues to support the foundation, which serves a seven-county area and understands the needs of the community and can put its resources to work where they do the most good.  Hanson also supports nonprofit organizations that matter to its employees. “It’s exciting to see our employees become engaged with community involvement,” said Pletsch.

Hanson has been part of the Springfield community since 1997. As it has grown over the years, it has a responsibility to give back. “At the end of the day, the community has been good to us,” said Pletsch, “We have the responsibility to be good stewards.

“It’s really great to see the impact of what we do,” she continued. “It’s heartwarming.”

Giving back is part of Illinois National Bank’s culture. “The executive leadership team takes charitable giving to heart,” said communications director Marilyn Schaefer. “It’s a great group of giving people.”

Since it opened its doors in 1999, the bank has set aside monies to give back to the community. “It’s very much a part of what it does,” said Schaefer, who added it’s about caring for the community. You can’t sit on the fringe.

The bank supports causes its employees are involved with. “We want to support our employees,” said Schaefer. “Our people are really good people. They will pitch in and do anything.”

This past football season it sponsored Touchdown for the Tables and raised $1,936 for Friend in Deed, St. Martin de Porres Center and Kids Café. It has also helped the park district, Brother James Court and Hope School and spearheaded the first annual Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure.

There are a lot of wonderful people in Springfield and the surrounding area. “By working with organizations and the individuals who benefit from these organizations, we have the opportunity to learn so much about the community and the people who live here,” said Schaefer.

“It helps us to be a better bank,” she added.

Tami Frye was raised to give back. Her parents were always helping someone in need. It was only a natural reaction to give back to the community when she opened Let’s Make Dinner two years ago.

“It makes a community so much stronger,” said Frye, who supports Springfield Health Check, United Cerebral Palsy and the Girl Scouts. Her business also works with stroke and head injury patients from Memorial Medical Center’s Outpatient Rehabilitation Services to help them relearn basic kitchen skills.

Her goal is to help people prepare healthy meals that are table ready. “There are a lot of people out there who need home-cooked meals,” said Frye. But they don’t know how to cook or don’t have the physical ability to prepare their own meals.

“It makes me feel good knowing I’ve helped someone else,” said Frye. She prepares and delivers meals to a number of elderly customers “I want to ensure they have access to home-cooked meals.”

When she opened her business, she was new to the business community and was pleased to be accepted. Giving back helped get her name out and make connections. “The more people you talk to, the more they know who you are,” said Frye.

She encourages everybody to reach out and help others. “Reaching out strengthens a community,” said Frye. “There are so many who need help.”

You don’t often hear about the good things that go on in a community. “It’s a feel good story you don’t hear often,” she said.

Terry Farmer learned from an early age to participate in and to be active in the community. “My grandfather owned a bike shop,” said Farmer, who opened Terry Farmer Photography 25 years ago. “He was always giving back.” His grandfather would donate bikes to those in the community who needed one or would fix bikes for free. “He was my mentor.”

It’s been an integral part of how he runs his own business. His grandfather taught him if you live in the community and make a living from the community you need to take care of the community. “It’s a win win for the business and a win win for the community,” said Farmer.

Participating in the community gives you a greater presence and validates you. Any business can find a way to connect and give back. “People respect that,” said Farmer. They want to do business with businesses that are passionate about helping their community.

It builds trust. “People get to know and respect you and the way you do business,” he said. It should be part of every business plan for businesses just starting out.

Farmer uses his craft to help charitable organizations including the American Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, Operation Smile, Central Illinois Foodbank and Animal Protective League. “You can’t give to everybody,” he said. “You have to focus on charities where the needs are greatest. There’s a lot of need in Springfield.”

Springfield has a big heart. “This is a great community,” said Farmer, who encourages other businesses to step up and become involved. It can be as simple as doing one thing a year. “It’s just a good thing to do. If it comes from the heart, that’s what’s important,” he continued.

“It makes a difference,” said Farmer.

Brad Zara has a calling to help others. “It’s always felt important to give back,” he said. Six years ago he and his wife, Julie, made a conscious effort to better understand what the Bible says.

The talent and ability he has to be in a position with the resources to help others is a gift from God. “We are stewards here on Earth,” said Zara, who opened Zara’s Collision Center 28 years ago. “We realize how fortunate we are when we see the struggles many go through in their day-to-day life.”

He and his wife have always believed but had not pursued their relationship with Christ. “Once we got serious and started learning more about what the Bible contains, it became very clear,” said Zara. “With that comes responsibility.”

He had a lot of really good mentors early on like Butch Elzea and Jim Brahler who served as role models. “I wanted to operate like they did,” said Zara.

“As a business owner, we have an obligation to take care of the needy in the community. You see the economic need, you can’t do enough,” Zara continued. It’s important to share the message so that others step up and become involved.

Among the organizations his business supports are Big Brothers Big Sisters, Contact Ministries, Inner City Mission, the Hope Institute and the Compass After-School Program that is run by the Family Service Center.

What Zara’s is best known for is its car giveaway program, which the company has been doing for 16 years. He works with social service agencies to identify individuals who need a vehicle. “We can give back with the fruits of our labor rather than just financial support,” said Zara, who has given away approximately 28 cars. “Businesses who have the resources are given them for a reason,” he added.

“It’s not all about making money,” he continued. He quoted his favorite piece of Scripture: “To whom much is given, much will be required.”

Roberta Codemo is a full-time freelance writer and started Codemo Writing Services in 2012. She works with small business owners to help create compelling online content and build their web presence. She can be reached at [email protected].