The Women with Courage Foundation, Rusk County

By Ed Marek, editor

November 12, 2010

During the mid-term election season, I was supporting Dr. Pam Galloway for state senate in Wisconsin's 29th District. In the process, I learned of a woman living in Ladysmith, Rusk County, named Vonnie Rydland. I was told that she and many others were doing some marvelous things for Rusk County through an organization they established called the "Women with Courage Foundation." I later arranged for Dr. Galloway to meet with her as well, which she did.

Vonnie filled us in on the general economic situation in the county but spent most of her time introducing us to the Women with Courage Foundation, of which is one of the founding members.

The Women with Courage Foundation is an organization founded by a group of women in Ladysmith. Said briefly, this foundation's mission is to provide financial assistance to people in Rusk County who are battling cancer, usually in the form of $500 stipends intended to help defray costs associated with their cancer, which I'll address a bit later.

I need to put this in context, so let me back up just a bit to set the stage, the environment in which the foundation operates to execute its mission. This environment is central to the reasons the women founders formed this organization. I'm going to spend a little time on this, so please bear with me.

Rusk County had 15,274 residents in 2004, a 48 percent decrease since the 2000 census. During the period April 2000 through January 2008, Rusk County added only 310 residents, a two percent growth rate. Ladysmith is the largest city in the county and serves as the county seat. Some of the outlying towns have seen some growth, trying to get into the vacation and country living businesses. The county has experienced more deaths than births as the population ages. Furthermore, the county has had a tough time finding workers to replace those who are retiring.

The median household income in 2000 was $31,344; in 2002, the per capita income was $20,859, ten thousand dollars below the national average.


Employment growth has been in decline since 2006 and 3Q2010 had declined by 34.9 percent after a succession of far smaller declines well below 10 percent, mostly in the area of 1-2 percent. Rusk County's unemployment rate approached 17 percent in March 2009 and improved to 12 percent by July 2009. Between 1997-2007, the county's unemployment rate never exceeded 10 percent, hovering in the 4-6 percent range. But 2009 treated the county harshly.

Wood product manufacturing has been fairly strong, but it too experienced severe losses in 2009. The decline of the housing market carries much of the blame.


Relevant to the foundation's work, the lack of growth in the healthcare industry has been a thorn in the side of the county and its residents. Attracting healthcare providers has been a chronic problem. The Marshfield Clinic and Rusk County Memorial Hospital form the bulk of the healthcare for the residents. Sometimes they have to travel to Eau Claire which has an oncology department.

I need to pause here for just a moment. Ladysmith on Hwy 27 to the north or south is about a 12 mile trip by car. Ladysmith by Hwy 8 west or east is about a 20 mile trip. Ladysmith to Eau Claire is about 50 miles. For most of us, these are short distances. If you have cancer and no car, or perhaps you can't even afford the gasoline, these distances are huge obstacles to care and therapy. Knowing this is important to understand the Women with Courage Foundation.

The fact that the county's people are working as hard as they can to stay afloat financially combined with the desperate health care situation are two core reasons the women of the county founded the Women with Courage Foundation.


Vonnie explained that foundation learned that many cancer patients in the county had no way to get to the doctor, or to the testing and therapy facilities, most of which reside in Ladysmith. As a result, quite often they simply did not go, left untreated. So a group of women got together and established the Women with Courage Foundation to raise money for these cancer patients. The foundation usually gives the patient a $500 stipend to help them take care of necessities and arrange transport to the facilities they need to get to.

Another moment for pause. My wife and I lived in northern Virginia outside Washington, DC, with more hospitals and cancer centers than most of us can count. The area was fairly affluent, plenty of highways, plenty of bus and rail service. My wife had lung cancer. We had two cars. With her cancer, she had to go to a chemo therapy unit some 10 miles away three times a week, she had appointments with cardiologists, lung guys, her oncologist, and her primary doctor. I recall vividly how she set up an office on our bed to coordinate and schedule all this, oft times having to keep the doctors' schedulers straight to avoid conflicts yet assure she got to see who she needed to see. Because of our situation, she was able to do all that and get to where she needed to get, when she needed to be there, and get back home.

Given the economic environment in Rusk County I described earlier, this kind of freedom of movement is not there for so many people afflicted with cancer, or any other difficult disease. So we have to put ourselves in their shoes.

Obviously the foundation has to raise funds. It does that through donations. Attracting donations any time is very hard work; attracting them in a tough economic environment is exponentially harder. But the Women for Courage Foundation works very hard at it. It holds fundraisers which attract dollars in just about every way one can do it: raffles of all kinds, trail rides, live auctions, selling items donated to the cause, many of which are hand-made, and even a little Black Jack. People also arrange for their estates to donate after they have passed.

Vonnie sent me photos of a fundraiser banquet held in the recent past. A fun thing is that the banquet is for women only. God bless them. They get their men to carry in and help set up the the auction items, bus the tables, and help run the games for the women! I've got to admit, this is a neat twist. But in retrospect, isn't that the way the world turns --- we men do whatever we're told, and the women normally run the show!


The annual banquet is a major event in Ladysmith and for the Women with Courage. The banquet hall is full. The Tee-Away Golf Club and Restaurant prepared a great meal for the ladies, owned by John and Mary Jo Schindler. Bravo to them.


There's always some entertainment to spice the place up.


That's Vonnie on the right working as the Master of Ceremonies, while Jerry Johnson prepares to do the live auctioneering.


Every year the ladies have some kind of desert. This is a Desert Tree with Chocolate Fountain. beautiful arrangement.


Left to right, Renae Baxter, Kathy Gudis, and standing, Jessica Wiles at the registration and reception desk.


Now let's lay it on the line. Women love to get in on auctions, raffles, and a little gambling. If there's a chance to win something, they are there. Here you see some anxiously waiting in line to spend their money on a great cause.


Here we have a lady, by golly, she can't get enough of those raffle tickets! I understand these tickets were bought as part of a "stretch raffle." A stretch raffle is done this way. The seller will place the ticket under his-her shoe or boot, then stretch as high as they can go over their heads while holding the other end of the strip of tickets, and that's what the person buys. You might charge $20 or so per stretch. The buyer can also grab one end of the tickets and stretch the strip as far across their chest as possible, and that's what they get for their money. Obviously the buyer wants tall people handling the stretch so they can get more tickets for their money. While they know they are contributing to a marvelous cause, down deep they want to win something too!


These tables hold live auction items donated for the banquet. Such items were on display all over the banquet room area. The white containers, I believe, are for the guests to insert their raffle tickets. I talked with a lady whose daughter attended, and she boasted that her daughter got the greatest rocking horse for the kids in the live auction.


This is a dice raffle. I could not get a good enough resolution to read the sign, but one of something wins $10, while three of something yields $20. A lot of times the dice will be colored on each side, but I'm not sure how this one was run.


Wow, here you see a lady holding her own dog, which she is going to auction at the banquet.


Now we're cookin', the men are allowed to deal at the Blackjack tables. Look how the women are ready to get into the game. The quilts you see in the lower right quadrant are items for the live auction, as is the painting to the upper right.


These three volunteer workers are taking a brief time-out while the guests eat dinner. They will soon be running some of the games.


While people were eating, Vonnie was buying raffle tickets from Edgar "Sam" Barg. Edgar's wife Shelly is a committed partner in the Women for Courage endeavor and works on the banquet committee. Sam helps out every year selling "stretch raffle" tickets. He's a big guy so my guess is you can get a good bundle of tickets from him.


This photo was taken a few years ago at a banquet. To the right is Sue Hause, and on the left is one of her three daughters. This photo is where functions and foundations like Women with Courage hit you square between the eyes.

Sue had been battling cancer for some five years. She, friends and family raised $1,200 for the foundation through Trail Ride horse rides, and did so several years running. Despite her cancer, she rode horses and worked at her job in the maintenance department at the local hospital, missing very few days of work to receive her chemo therapy. Sue later died of the disease. She was widely loved and admired and had been devoted to the foundation's cause. She raised a lot of money for the foundation and the foundation's members, and many others, consider her to be one of God's Angels. Her daughters still come to the foundation's events.


Here you see, left to right, Sue's daughter, Vonnie and Sue at an event. In this photo Sue is presenting the foundation a check for the $1,200 she helped raise on the Trail Rides.


Before I close, I want to alert you to another major function in which the Women for Courage participates. It's known as the Ladysmith Northland Mardi Gras, held each year on the third Saturday of July. The Women for Courage join with the Marshfield Clinic to conduct a 5-10K walk-run event in which contestants pay an entry fee, part of which goes to the foundation. It looks like fun.

I would also remark briefly that the Women for Courage Foundation has allied with the
Rusk County Community Foundation and has set up an Endowed Agency Fund. When giving to the Community Foundation, one can select the funds to go to any of several non-profits, one of which if the Women for Courage Foundation.

I am one who can easily get locked up in the macro political and military issues of the day.. But on those fortunate occasions where I meet people like I met here, I am humbled and proud. I am humbled because I know I do not do enough for causes like this. I am proud because Americans such as you've seen here, living in difficult economic circumstances, dig in to help those who face such enormous challenges as fighting off cancer. God has blessed us with these kinds of people.

You can contact women associated with this foundation as follows:

  • Kim Reisner, 715- 532-3290
  • Christa Doughty, 715- 532-7338
  • Shelley Barg, 715-532-6131
  • Ellen Allison, 715-532-3931