30 Days of Thanks: Small Business Owners

30 Days of Thanks: Small Business SaturdayIt’s the heart of the holiday season. Thanksgiving has come and gone (as well as Black Friday), and there are only a few short weeks until the holidays.

A common phrase I’ve been hearing at work is, "Are you done with your Christmas shopping yet?" This year, I’ve decided to do 100 percent of my holiday shopping at places that I’m thankful for – small businesses.

Why? Because for every $100 spent at a small business, $68 stays in the local economy. As someone who lives in a small town, you can see the difference a thriving small business community makes. According to the U.S. Dept. of Commerce, more than 5.4 million businesses fall into the category of 0-19 employees. That translates into about 21.4 million people employed through small businesses.

I think it’s pretty clear supporting local and small businesses is important. But even without researched facts, I love to and would much rather shop small and/or local shops. I’ve had OK customer service and great deals at the big chain stores, but I’ve never built a relationship with them like I have with small shops -- and their owners.

What places are on my list to stop at this year?

For starters, Horse Emporium in Waukesha, Wis. Sue and her family have run the store since 1986. They are a great source for knowledgeable information and friendly advice about your horse and riding needs. Not to mention the girls – Amy and Alissa – were incredibly patient when fitting my daughter for riding boots, as well as a new saddle for a high-withered horse. 

I’ll also stop at Lewis Station Winery in Lake Mills, Wis. Owners Michelle and Rob created a boutique winery and shop in the heart of this community. I believe if you can’t find appropriate hostess gifts at Lewis Station for all the holiday parties you’re attending this season, you might as well stay home.

I also made a special trip in October to Door County to pick up a few items from the local shops, including Maxwell’s House and a local cherry orchard (25 pounds of Door County cherries to be exact!).  

But it’s not just the traditional store-front shops that fall into the small business category. There are also numerous service-type companies and one-person shops to consider year-round when looking for goods and services.

Small business owners are our friends and neighbors. They are vitally important to the economic growth and stability of our nation. Despite economic volatility, many of these local businesses continue to survive and provide jobs, services and products to our communities. This is a testament to the small business owners’ tenacity and creativity, and to the faithfulness of local consumers.

The next time you walk into a local establishment or contact a local service provider, take a moment to pause, look around, and see all that is being done, what is being provided, and the number of people busy at work. If you get a chance, find the owner and thank them for being willing to take the risk, stand against all odds, and provide jobs and revenue for your community.  

What small business will you be shopping at this season? Give them a shout-out in the comments below.

30 Days of Thanks American Family InsuranceEditor's note: Give yourself permission to practice gratitude! Each day during November, American Family Insurance will share ideas for showing appreciation for the people, things and events in our lives. We hope you use these 30 Days of Thanks as an opportunity to share your gratitude. Visit us on Facebook for inspiration and ideas as we celebrate 30 Days of Thanks.   

Posted by Sandra Spann on Sat, Nov 30 2013 8:40 amSandra Spann is a strategic communications consultant for American Family Insurance.

30 Days of Thanks: Thanksgiving without Mel

Mel ReynoldsToday is a melancholy day for me. Yes, on this Thanksgiving Day, I’m grateful for so much – family, friends, faith, health, career – all the usual blessings we tend to reflect upon this time of year.

But Thanksgiving Day is different this year, and probably will be for years to come.

You see, since I met my wife nearly 20 years ago, I’ve spent most Thanksgivings with her family, usually at her aunt and uncle’s home in northeast Iowa. And each visit was made memorable by my wife’s grandfather, Mel.

I experienced Mel fully each Thanksgiving Day, usually through a barrage of questions and curiosity. That was his thing. The conversations helped Mel connect people through relationships he’d forged in life.

Despite his small stature and quiet presence, Mel built big things. From the ground up, he constructed the story-and-a-half house he shared with his wife of more than 60 years. Mel made his living with his hands, too, most notably as a carpenter and handyman for one of Dubuque, Iowa’s largest department stores.

Mel created with his heart, too, forging countless friendships that lasted decades, often through unselfish acts of kindness, like ringing bells for the Salvation Army, or volunteering at his local church.

His favorite questions started with, “Do you know so-and-so?” Or, “Have you ever met this person?” – Mel's sparkly blue eyes making him impossible to resist. It wasn’t that he was necessarily interested in my answers as much as he was in using my reactions to learn more about me – or anyone else he approached – during those November gatherings.      

For an introvert like me, the conversations were uncomfortable at first. But after a few visits, it was old hat, and we would play the “do you know?” game, all the while getting to know each other better.

30 Days of Thanks - TodaySadly, Mel passed away in September after complications from a stroke. He was 91, and is dearly missed on this Thanksgiving Day by those who got to know him best.   

I’ll miss those blue eyes, which would draw you into conversation and force your guard down.  

I’ll miss trying to connect the people in our lives, and the opportunity to learn more about each other along the way.

I’ll miss visiting Mel, and spending time in his neat-as-a-pin home he built with his hands some 70 years ago. The house is still there – nestled among a sprawling university campus – but it’s not a home without Mel.

Yes, I’m thankful for the time I knew Mel and the conversations we had, but melancholy about having to spend today without his presence – and the opportunity to know him better.

Rest in peace, Grandpa Mel.

Posted by Tom Buchheim on Thu, Nov 28 2013 7:09 pm

30 Days of Thanks: Cooking up Grand Memories

30 Days of Thanks: GrandparentsIt didn’t matter what day of the week it was - that cozy little kitchen always smelled heavenly.

My grandma – or ‘Gram’ as I lovingly remember her, was always cooking when I came to visit her tiny house on Pacific Street. Some days she would be standing over the stove flipping fragrant cinnamon-spiced crepes (nicknamed “penny rolls”), and other times I’d find her cranking an apple peeler to make homemade applesauce – the waxy peels falling to the floor with a light ‘thunk’.

Gram had a wonderful way of captivating you with whatever project she was working on when you arrived. Greeting you with a hug so tight you could barely breathe, she would waste no time involving you in her latest endeavor.

“Go out to the garden and cut me some chives for the soup” she would say in her no-nonsense voice, handing me pair of scissors, and shooing me outdoors as soon as I set my suitcase down.

Gram taught me so many things over the years – but I’m most grateful for our time spent cooking together.

Besides sharing ways to make my own kitchen smell irresistible, she helped me discover the simple joy of creating something with your own two hands. And today, when I pull out recipe cards with her wobbly cursive handwriting, I’m grateful for the sweet memories that come flooding back with each line.

Thank you, Gram. I miss you.

What are your fondest memories of a special grandparent? What made them grand?

30 Days of Thanks American Family InsuranceEditor's note: In the pursuit of dreams, take time to thank those who have helped you along the way. Each day during November, American Family Insurance will share ideas for showing appreciation for the people, things and events in our lives. We hope you use these 30 Days of Thanks as an opportunity to share your gratitude -- or even just take a few moments each day to reflect on everything good in your life. Visit us on Facebook during November for inspiration and ideas as we celebrate 30 Days of Thanks. 

Posted by Grace VanDeWeghe on Wed, Nov 27 2013 10:13 am

30 Days of Thanks: A life filled with teachers

30 Days of Thanks: TeachersI went through the gauntlet of third grade 18 years ago, but have yet to escape the happenings of a third grade classroom.

See, I’ve been lucky enough to be blessed with a mother, Deb, who has spent her entire adult life molding the lives of third graders (not to mention my grandma and several aunts and uncles who also spent their working lives in classrooms).

Day in and day out, through good days and bad, my mom heads into her classroom with a purpose. She views each day as an opportunity to leave a mark on a young mind. That’s something she won’t allow herself to take for granted because she knows how powerful her job is and can be.

That’s how she’s operated for well over 30 years.

But those who didn’t see her outside of the classroom setting didn’t know her normal day of teaching wasn’t over when she left the building each day. Not even close.

When she got home, even after the worst days, she spent time teaching me and my younger sister. There were nights around the kitchen table when my sister and I would work on homework while my mom graded papers or updated lesson plans. If we had questions, guess who was always there with an answer?

One of the coolest times of my life was when my reading teacher was my mom. I spent 45 minutes in her classroom each day. What I remember most poignantly was how she treated me exactly as she treated the other 20-25 kids in the class.

I was at school to learn. When I was home I could be the teacher’s pet.

I’ve always been grateful for those 45 minutes in her classroom. Seeing my mom do what she loves and do it well molded the way I approached school for the rest of my academic career.

She taught me discipline, respect and compassion. She taught me never to give up on something. She taught me I had what it takes to do whatever I wanted to in life, and that I should never settle for anything less – all things I carry forward to this day.

When I found out I was rejected from the University of Wisconsin-Madison as a senior in high school, I felt entirely dejected. Getting that note from the only school I ever wanted to attend could have taken a nasty toll on my confidence.

But without missing a beat, my mom was there to pick me up. She was there to teach me nothing comes easy in life, but everything is possible if you work hard and stay smart. After one year at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, I wound up at UW-Madison, where I graduated with a degree in Journalism and Mass Communication in 2009.

Guess who I said thanks to immediately after the ceremony was over?  

What’s also neat is I’m soon to be married to a first-grade teacher, who I’ve already seen impact the lives of many – both educationally and socially – in her two-and-a-half years in a classroom. Though we don’t have any children, I know for a fact there will be plenty of nights around the kitchen table where we all work on homework and educate one another, should that time come.

For that, I’m thankful the most influential teachers in my life were – and continue to be – at my disposal 24/7.

What teachers had the most affect on your life? 

Posted by Tom Lea on Mon, Nov 25 2013 9:55 amTom Lea is a strategic communications writer for American Family Insurance, who also spent seven years covering Wisconsin football and basketball.

30 Days of Thanks: Teachers are Heroes Among Us

30 Days of Thanks teachersUntil I was in college, school was easy for me. I didn’t have to work very hard to get good grades, and the only times I got detentions were for talking to my friends during class. So it came as a surprise when my two youngest kids started having trouble in school this year.

“Will had a bad day today,” said the email from my first-grade son’s teacher shortly after the school year began. I soon found out he was having a bad day nearly every day. He talked back to his teachers, refused to follow directions, cried when his team lost in gym class and walked around the room during music class. He’s always had a mind of his own, but this behavior was unexpected and unacceptable.

 I met with his teacher after school several times, and we came up with a simple reward system. I also took him to a therapist to see if he needs medication or another form of therapy. His teacher spoke with his therapist during her free time at school and completed a detailed questionnaire.

At the same time, my fourth-grader was struggling with problems of his own. He couldn’t make sense of what he was reading in his textbooks and was unable to work independently. He was also feeling sad and lonely because his best friend had switched to a new school this year. He doesn’t like to play sports, and all the other boys played kickball or football during recess, leaving him without any friends.

I contacted his teacher two weeks after school started to express my concerns. She told me that she and the other teachers in the intermediate unit were already aware of his struggles. They were spending extra time guiding Emmett through the directions for tests and giving him reminders to keep him on track. Together, we decided to start the lengthy process of having him evaluated for a learning disability. This meant documenting the issues and meeting with representatives from the school district several times before the school day started, plus keeping in touch with me on his progress. 

Our efforts have slowly started to pay off. Last week, they brought home their report cards, and Emmett has mostly B’s, a couple of A’s and only one C. He even started playing kickball at recess recently and has two new friends!

I credit his teacher for encouraging him and for pulling some of the boys aside and asking them to make him feel welcome.

Will is on track academically, and his behavior is starting to improve. He’s enjoying school more, and I haven’t had an email from his teacher telling me about a bad day in the past few weeks.

I am so grateful for the patience, kindness and support of my kids’ teachers during this very rough first quarter. Without the extra time they have spent, our kids might be headed down the wrong path. Instead, they’re back on track.

And that means everything to me.    

Posted by Peggy Nolan on Mon, Nov 25 2013 6:16 amPeggy Nolan is a strategic communications technician at American Family Insurance.
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