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UW president knows 'what matters'

With the Becker County United Way's 2006 fund-raising drive about to get underway, its president, Melissa Lage, is a very busy woman.

The fund-raising drive, after all, is where the organization gets the money to fund participating nonprofit agencies in the coming year.

"United Way really is a local thing," Lage says. "Our board really appreciates how the national United Way organization allows us to do what we need to do -- less than one percent of what we raise goes to the national organization.

"That helps offset the cost of brochures and national advertising... the rest of it stays local.

And the members of the local United Way chapter do their part as well.

"We only have two paid staff positions -- the rest of us are all volunteers," she says. "That makes sure the money goes out to the agencies that need it."

But fund-raising is only part of what the United Way does, Lage adds.

The local chapter recently commissioned a community needs assessment "to help community partners understand the degree to which area leaders believe each community asset exists in Becker County, and the relative importance of each asset in developing strong, vibrant and healthy communities."

Lage says this survey is "the most exciting thing (to happen) this year," because it's going to be "very helpful" in identifying areas where area charitable organizations and nonprofit agencies should concentrate their resources.

"I'm amazed how many people are out there trying to help the residents (of Becker County)," she says. "But they need direction -- when they have that, then they really have the power to do something."

Lage says the survey really fits in well with the United Way's national theme for 2006-07, "What Matters."

"What matters to most people is that they want to help their neighbor right down the road (when they need it)," Lage says. One misperception many people have of United Way is that it's not for everyone.

"The United Way is not just for the downtrodden or people in crisis," she says.

For instance, the United Way helps fund youth programs such as Girl Scouts, Lage continues. And what many people don't realize is that much of the work these agencies do is to provide "the human touch... much of what they do is to just be there, to support them (those in need) and talk to them."

Part of the Becker County United Way's success in its annual Day of Caring community service project lies in the opportunities for interaction between the community's youth and its senior citizens, Lage added.

There are often friendships formed between the groups of young people who go out to do these various home and lawn maintenance projects, and the area seniors and shut-ins that they serve.

"On Sept. 14, we will be having our second Community Celebration at the DL Pavilion," she says. "it takes place of a residential (fund-raising) drive, and it also gives our agencies a chance to show what they can do for the community. Many just don't know what services are available in our area.

"The celebration also provides an opportunity for networking between agencies.

"These agencies are getting less and less money -- they have to get creative," she says. Pooling their resources on projects and activities can often make those dollars go a little farther.

Lage has been a part of the Becker County United Way for 15 years -- more than half her 22-year tenure at SJE Rhombus, where she currently serves as vice president of marketing. She also serves on the board of Thrivent Financial, and has worked with Lakes Crisis & Resource Center on its fund-raising board.

"It's interesting to see how (a non-profit) agency works from the inside," she says. Since she began serving on these different boards, she has gained a "new respect" for what non-profit agencies do.

"They do so much with so little," she says.

In addition to her work with SJE Rhombus, as well as the United Way and other charitable organizations, Lage is also a wife and mother of two.

Her husband, Pat, owns a construction company and spends his time building log homes in the area.

"We will be married 25 years in April," she says. Their children, Stephanie, 17 ("almost 18," Lage says) and Sam, 15, are both students at Lake Park-Audubon High School in Lake Park.

A native of Luverne, Minn. (in the southwest part of the state), Lage earned a degree in marketing and advertising from Moorhead State (now Minnesota State) University in Moorhead, and spent every summer through her college years working at Fair Hills Resort south of Detroit Lakes.

"I love living by the lakes," she says. It was at Fair Hills that she met her future husband.

After college, she worked in marketing for a couple of years at Lakes Publishing (now Detroit Lakes Newspapers), before taking another marketing job at SJE.

In her 22 years there, she has also worked in project management, engineering and business management systems, before taking her current position as vice president and "moving back into marketing.

"I've had many different jobs, but it's all been with the same company," she says. "It's very interesting."

She's also enjoyed watching the company grow.

"I was the 17th employee hired at SJE," she says. "Now there are about 250."

Part of the company's secret to success was the decision to move into being an employee-owned enterprise in the late 1990s.

"That's been very motivating," she adds.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454