By Rachel Wisinski
Bryan Iwicki was reserved as a student, but in the past 10 years he has emerged from his shell thanks to an unlikely outlet. As president of the Lake Geneva Jaycees, Iwicki leads a group of about 80 men ages 21 to 41 in fundraising for various causes across Walworth County. The nonprofit, which is a fully sanctioned chapter of the Wisconsin Junior Chamber International, has served the community since 1962.
Iwicki joined the group after college, and he has benefited beyond the satisfaction of helping others.
“It certainly trains you to be a leader in your job,” he says. “As a young person, all of a sudden you’re thrust into a leadership role, and you have to work with people, manage people, use organizational skills, and you’re held accountable if you choose to chair an event. For a lot of guys, it’s their first opportunity in their developing life to be in charge of something.”
Venetian Festival Co-chairman Ryan Stelzer, on the other hand, had experience in leadership positions, but he says nothing has had the breadth of impact quite like the Jaycees.
Lake Geneva boasts the largest chapter in the state. And in 2016, it was recognized by the Janesville Gazette as the best nonprofit as well as for best festival or event for the group’s largest annual fundraiser — Venetian Festival.
However, the accolades aren’t why members join. “Seeing people you can help out and making a difference, that means more than awards,” Iwicki says. “We love the recognition — that’s great, but that’s not the purpose.”
The only two requirements for members are to pay dues and help with Venetian Fest. Stelzer says maintaining membership looms large because Jaycees “age out” when their membership year ends following their 41st birthday. Other chapters, such as those in Janesville and Milwaukee, have folded because not enough young people join to sustain large fundraisers. “It’s more of a point of pride because we’re a small community but we’re able to drive a young person’s leadership group to the size that we have,” Stelzer adds.
With so many worthy causes vying for attention, Stelzer says the Jaycees continue to work hard to determine which are best suited for their efforts. “Time is obviously valuable, and you want to make sure when you’re volunteering that it’s going toward creating the most amount of good it can,” he says.
WLKG 96.1 General Manager Nancy Douglass supports the Jaycees by promoting events, serving as emcee at various fundraisers — such as Lake Geneva’s annual Easter Egg hunt — and helping secure bands for Venetian Fest.
“I really think people would be very surprised at the far-reaching positive effects that the Jaycees have had on our community,” she says.
Their work isn’t lost on Betty Aguirre, a Lake Geneva resident who started Special Olympics Walworth County 32 years ago. What started with seven athletes with physical and intellectual disabilities has grown to more than 200, and with that growth comes the need for more transportation, uniforms and equipment. Transportation alone costs $9,000 annually.
Aguirre won’t ask the Jaycees for a specific amount, but knowing that figure, the men continue to make a sizable donation year after year, which has amounted to “thousands and thousands of dollars,” according to Aguirre. “They have been extremely instrumental with helping me keep this program alive,” she says.
The partnership started by chance — Aguirre was at a park teaching tennis to a group of Special Olympians, and balls kept flying onto the next court, where a group of Jaycees were playing. After Aguirre spent the afternoon apologizing, the men introduced themselves to her and the athletes and asked what they were doing. Next thing she knew, Aguirre was making a presentation at a Jaycees’ board meeting, and the rest is history.
Now, she says, they’re making dreams come true on a wider scope. “They’re so willing to be of assistance,” Aguirre says. “For me, they’re like my guardian angels, and I’m sure so many other people in the community who have received funding from them feel the same way.”
The Jaycees hold about 40 events a year, and in the past five years, they’ve donated to more than 50 organizations in the area, Iwicki says.
Although everyone takes pride in something different, Stelzer says nothing beats the work they do around the holidays.
Aside from donating a trailer full of items to the food pantry every year, the Jaycees also work with schools and social workers to prepare Thanksgiving dinner for about 120 families. They also shop, wrap and deliver gifts to about 130 kids from 40 to 50 families at Christmastime.
What’s humbling, Stelzer says, is seeing the children’s lists — most of the time, 8-year-old boys and girls want socks and underwear for Christmas instead of toys. “When you see that type of need and that type of desire, and then you get to deliver the gifts to them and see that happiness, it’s priceless,” Stelzer says. “That kind of impact is huge.”
A number of other charitable causes — some Lake Geneva-specific, such as the Geneva Lakes YMCA’s youth baseball Dream Team for kids with special needs, and others countywide, such as Walworth County Alliance for Children or Big Brothers Big Sisters — benefit from the Jaycees’ generosity.
The group also assists with the county’s Clean Sweep program, which collects unused prescription medications so they don’t end up in the water system.
When the weather starts to warm up, the Jaycees fill sandboxes across the county for free. They donate tents to Kisses for Keagan so children faced with cancer treatments have a cozy space to feel safe during hospital stays. A group of men also sign up to grill hot dogs at Lake Geneva’s annual Walk to End Alzheimer’s event.
The Jaycees even work with area chambers of commerce to coordinate the Christmas parade.
But nothing compares to Venetian Festival. Celebrating its 56th year Aug. 15-19, the five-day festival features live music, a carnival, a performance by the Wonder Lake Water Ski Team, a lighted boat parade, an arts and crafts fair, food, fireworks and more.
What makes it unique, Stelzer says, is the diversity. “Some festivals may be purely targeted at the music side of things, some will be purely targeted on the carnival, some will just be more arts and crafts,” he says. “Having that all happen in a condensed area where people can just enjoy it all, not to mention it’s all happening in downtown Lake Geneva on the lakefront, so you have everything the town has to offer all within walking distance makes this different.”
This year’s event will culminate with the largest fireworks display to date, Stelzer says.
The Jaycees begin planning some parts of the summer celebration, such as selecting the bands, a year in advance, but an event-specific committee begins meeting regularly in January. About 110 to 120 local nonprofits are highlighted, from the American Legion and Lions Club to the YMCA and various animal shelters.
“It’s our largest fundraiser, so it dictates how many organizations we help and what we can do throughout the year,” Stelzer says. Because the festival requires no entry fee, he adds, families can attend and pay reasonable prices all while helping good causes.
Everyone from age 1 to 100 can look forward to the festival, WLKG’s Douglass adds, and it’s a plus that visitors get a taste of the shops and restaurants that make Lake Geneva the destination it is.
“Every single dime the Jaycees make goes back into our local community,” she says of the event. “I think that their attendance numbers, their reputation for keeping it safe and how it is professionally run reflects well on the community.”