(First published in the November 7, 2019 issue of City Pages)
Tom Rau, who oversaw the agency becoming the largest food bank in the area, will soon retire
Rau: When encountering a person in distress, the thought shouldn’t be, “What will happen to me if I stop,” it should be, “What will happen to this person if I don’t stop.”
Ask Tom Rau, soon to retire from his 18-year stint as director of The Neighbors’ Place, what the most challenging things have been about the job and his voice trails off. Ask about the most rewarding things and prepare to kiss 10 minutes goodbye.
Rau has led the beloved agency on Scott Street in Wausau since 2001. His wife Marcy retired several months ago from her 15 years as the director of community learning at The Neighbors’ Place and Rau is about to start the transition into retirement himself, after on-boarding his replacement.
Donna Ambrose of Beloit will begin Nov. 11 as the nonprofit’s new director. She and Rau will spend the weeks between then and the end of the year to get her off to a smooth start.
Ambrose began her career in the corporate world, but switched to nonprofits in Beloit when she became head of the Caritas Community Resource Center, which began as a food and clothing pantry and later also become a diaper bank. It serves about 1,000 people each week.
Most recently she has been the director of partnerships and programs at Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin. She says Second Harvest (known nationally as Feeding America) is the largest hunger relief organization in America, getting contracts for food from various sources and establishing a network of food banks to distribute the food statewide.
The Neighbors’ Place new director, Donna Ambrose, previously headed a food pantry in Beloit, and worked for the largest hunger relief organization in America, Second Harvest.
Her experience with local food pantries and regional networks that help supply them was a factor in her move to The Neighbors’ Place. When Rau began there, the agency was beginning to evolve. It started as a small neighborhood center, focused largely on cultural literacy classes for Southeast Asian refugees. Marcy Rau and others taught basic English, money-handling, job skills, and about local social services.
As the flow of refugees slowed to a stop in the early 2000s, the need for those services declined but the need for emergency food assistance grew. The Neighbors’ Place renovated its space, added a walk-in freezer and changed its focus to become the largest food pantry in the county and a hub for distribution to other local pantries.
And Ambrose comes with years of experience in that area. She says it’s important that people feel it’s no big deal to come to the food pantry, “no shame or embarrassment – just a resource they can use in the community.”
There might be changes under the new leadership, but Rau says he has faith that everything will be OK, knowing the board is committed to the agency’s success. He’s still grateful for their attitude when he had a stroke four years ago. “To a person, they said, ‘Tom, we want you to know whatever you need to get back to work, we will make that happen.’”
In his early years at The Neighbors’ Place, there were weeks Rau worried about making payroll, but the agency is more secure now. “It’s such a wonderful community. If you do good work and they can easily see you’re helping, they’re more than willing to help you.”
Before joining The Neighbors’ Place, Rau worked as a credit manager, church administrator and director of Wausau Community Theater. His favorite job is the one he’s in now. “The most rewarding is the people I’ve had an opportunity to work with and making a difference in lives. I just absolutely loved working here.”
Rau says he likes to share a story that was also a favorite of Martin Luther King about a good Samaritan. When encountering a person in distress, the thought shouldn’t be, “What will happen to me if I stop,” it should be, “What will happen to this person if I don’t stop.”
Lisa O’Flyng, president of The Neighbors’ Place board of directors, also credits Rau with overseeing the creation of a partnership with the Marathon County Hunger Coalition and the popular annual Empty Bowls fundraiser. This year’s Empty Bowls will be held Saturday, Nov. 23 at Wausau West High School, 11 am–2 pm.