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Helping Kids, Helping the Community

It all started when Jim Nick discovered a big problem in his small town.

After learning that there were more than 300 homeless children in his hometown in central Wisconsin, the American Family Insurance agent wasn’t just concerned — he was determined to do something about it. With a harsh Wisconsin winter quickly approaching, he dreamed of making the school year safe and comfortable for local kids in need.

  1. Video Transcript 

    [MUSIC PLAYING] 

    On screen: KRISTINE GILMORE, Superintendent, D.C. Everest Area School District 

    KRISTINE GILMORE: At DC Everest, we have about 165 homeless students, and I received a call out of the blue one day from someone named Jim Nick, who I'd met before. but didn't really know, who said, Kris, I hear you have these homeless students. Can you tell me more about that? 

    On screen: JIM NICK, American Family Insurance, Wausau, Wisconsin 

    JIM NICK: The kids are living in churches or living in cars and tents. They live on their friends' couches. So I just felt like we needed to do something as a community. We want the kids to know that somebody cares about them.  

    KRISTINE GILMORE: Jim's one of those people that everyone in the community knows, and he reached out to his friends, and then he reached into his own pocket. And he has helped provide hats, boots, shoes, snow pants, jackets, gloves, you name it. If I have a need and ask for it, he finds a way. 

    JIM NICK: Local businesses called me and said, we want to help. We were able to buy stuff at a really deep discount. We had a lot of stuff donated, and we stocked some food pantries in two elementary schools. 

    The last two years, we bought 300 backpacks each year. The counselors could fill the backpacks. The kids wanted to go home, they'd throw their backpack on, and they'd walk home like everybody else. Somebody asked me, how long do you think you're going to do this? And I said, well, I suppose until we're out of homeless kids. 

    KRISTINE GILMORE: He's a person that knows that it takes one person to make a difference, so he's going to make whatever difference he can, and it just happens to be a really big one. 

    JIM NICK: When you go to sleep at night, you know that you've done the most that you can do to help others in your community. I don't think that a lot of these kids had any hope, and now they do. 

    On screen: Insure carefully, dream fearlessly. American Family Insurance 

For two months, Jim worked tirelessly to start, plan and organize a group that could help him achieve his mission. With the help of local businesses and the public, he raised roughly $70,000 in just six weeks and purchased enough school supplies, winter clothing, toiletries, shoes, scientific calculators, meals, snacks, book bags and personal hygiene products for 300 children to last through the school year. “I remember looking at winter boots and picking up a pair that were a kid’s size 1. They were so tiny they fit in my hand.”

It was the inspiration he needed to establish his program — Help the Kids — to combat the devastating problem in his community.

Help the Kids means that Jim is now a regular at his local department store, with much of the staff knowing him by name and helping him get the most for his money. The numbers are staggering: 100 jackets and snow pants, 850 pairs of boots and shoes, 4,500 pairs of socks, thousands of school supplies — all in a single season. He now accepts wish lists from the school districts to determine the basic items are needed most by their students, which he then works hard to fulfill. Between the clothing, cash donations, and donations from partners, Jim raised more than $130,000 for the school year.

Jim has also formed a partnership with the school district to start tackling other issues. Together, they distributed free bus passes to children, so they could avoid having to walk to school in the freezing winter months. And after meeting with several school officials and collecting enough money to pay all the overdue lunch accounts, he also ensured that every child receives a hot lunch — whether they can pay or not. He’s also helped schools make it possible to provide laundry services, so that each child has clean clothes to wear to school.

“Being able to change a child’s life, and knowing that they’ll never meet you or even know who you are,” Jim says. “And then, receiving cards that say, ‘Thank you for the winter coat. I haven’t had a coat in three years,’ and ‘Thank you for keeping me warm this winter. I’ve been living on my own since I was 14.’ Suddenly, the 18-hour days are no longer important, and the kids become the only thing on your mind.”

And it’s not just the children in need that Jim is making an impact on — it’s also the community as a whole. “The awareness has grown so much, which has made it a lot easier to receive help and even more donations for the children,” says Jim. “Children are now bringing extra sandwiches to school, so they can help feed their friends; over the holiday season, a group of elementary school kids donated their gifts to their homeless classmates; and children have since started their own programs to help homelessness. It’s just incredible.”

Want a simple but meaningful way to get involved and help homeless kids in your community? We've got some tips for volunteering at and donating to food banks.

Jim has no plans of slowing down anytime soon. He’s currently working with area business on the development of a homeless shelter for teens, and will continue his Help the Kids program each school year — and inspiring others in the community in the process.

"The whole thing was pretty overwhelming when I first started because I didn’t have direction on any of it,” says Jim. “But I found that you don’t need direction, you just need to find a way to get it handled.”


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Related Topics: Community Involvement , Empathy