By Benjamin Wideman
GREEN BAY – Mary Ehnerd isn’t one to just sit around.
Nearly 20 years after she retired, Mary, 84, works 16 hours per week and devotes another 30 hours per week to the nonprofit organization she founded, Mary’s Missions, which seeks to improve the quality of life for veterans, the homeless and Native American women and children.
“I just think it’s my generation’s work ethic,” said Ehnerd. “I just wasn’t happy sitting around not doing anything when I retired. What I’m doing now keeps me busy and helps other people at the same time.”
After spending 12 years as a fourth-grade teacher at St. Francis in Hollandtown and working various other jobs over the years, Mary retired at the age of 63.
But she found herself with too much free time and at the age of 69 she began working at Walmart in De Pere “to add structure to my day,” she said.
Fifteen years later, she still works at Walmart 16 hours per week.
In 2016, still with some free time on her hands — as a then-77-year-old woman — and seeking to make an impact in the lives of others, Mary started providing several boxes a year to a community development center on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
The boxes contained hygiene items and other materials.
That continued from 2016 until fall 2021, when Mary was preparing to bring more than 20 boxes to the site but couldn’t find anyone to provide transportation due to COVID-related issues.
“I could not afford to ship them, because shipping to South Dakota is very expensive. Previously, I had shipped a few boxes here and there, but not 20-plus,” she said. “So friends and family encouraged me to do a ‘Go Fund Me’ page just to raise enough money to send those boxes.”
One thing led to another, and Mary — who had been operating solely as an individual — soon thereafter was applying for status as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization for Mary’s Missions.
Today, more than 40 individuals and seven corporations donate money and items to her cause, which benefits veterans, the homeless and Native American women and children.
“I felt those were the three most underserved communities,” Mary said.
Mary connects with the Milo C. Huempfner Health Care Center in Green Bay.
Until just recently, she was providing the center with laundry baskets (filled with sheets, pillows, bath towels, etc.) and kitchen kits that were distributed to veterans transitioning from homelessness to independent living.
She plans to continue working with the Huempfner site, but her efforts will be shifting to special projects.
“For example, the Center just recently reached out to Mary’s Missions because they had a veteran who needed a bed and they asked if we could provide one,” Mary said. “So we got everything — bed, frame, comforter set, pillows, the whole works — and my son David used a truck to deliver them to the veteran’s house.”
Assisting the homeless
Once during the winter and three times during the summer, Mary’s Missions provides Newcap Inc. of Green Bay with items to support those who are homeless.
In the winter, backpacks are filled with warm mittens, scarves, hats, hygiene items, a poncho, notebook and pens.
Mary noted that fellow parishioner Marie Wall does an outstanding job making the mittens for those backpacks.
In the summer, items include healthy snacks, bottled water, sun screen, hygiene items and a pair of $5 McDonald’s gift cards.
Newcap Inc.’s mission for more than 50 years “has been to move people from poverty to opportunities and economic security, while enhancing community development.”
Assisting Native American women and children
About eight times during the year, Mary’s Missions provides a variety of items to support people on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
The site, not far from Badlands National Park, is among the poorest areas in the United States.
Mary’s Missions recently switched its support site and now will be helping those at the Sacred Shawl Women’s Shelter in Martin, S.D., which is on the reservation.
“I saw that Native American communities closer to bigger cities were doing a little better, but ones further west like Pine Ridge Reservation weren’t doing well, so I went west,” Mary said.
When asked how it makes her feel to help others, Mary said, “I don’t really think about that. I just know it’s important to get things out the door and have them get distributed to people who are in need of them. In the future I just want to be able to more fully support the things we’re already doing.
“I still remember what a donor said his mother told him, ‘If you can, you should.’ Well, I can, and I am. I want to help people.”
Among those supporting Mary on a regular basis are her sons, Dan Ehnerd and Dave Ehnerd; her fellow board members Janice Van Wychen, Dan Ehnerd, Michael McCormick and Phyllis Jaworski (Mary serves as board president); her grandson Zach Ehnerd (website updates); and her niece Laura Nagel, along with a few of Laura’s family members.
Mary was born and raised in Green Bay, where she lived until her junior year of high school.
She and her late husband, Robert, who passed away in 2004, were married at St. Paul Church in Wrightstown on Sept. 13, 1958; today, she is a member of St. Clare Catholic Parish.
When asked how long she plans to continue working, with so many projects on her plate, Mary didn’t hesitate to reply, “My plan is to die with my boots on. I’m not stopping.”
For more information on Mary’s Missions, visit www.marys3missions.org.