By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium
BENTON HARBOR — Jasper Huff smiled when he was brought into a room where everyone was wearing Mickey Mouse ears.
The 3-year-old and his family were taken to the upstairs cafeteria at Whirlpool Corp.’s Riverview Campus on Thursday, where he was treated to a send-off party courtesy of the home appliance maker and the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
The cafeteria was transformed into a “glimpse of Disney” for a reason. Jasper had brain cancer and was 10 months into remission. He and his family were heading to Disney World where Jasper would meet Mickey Mouse.
However, the reason Jasper’s send-off party was at Whirlpool’s Riverview Campus was because of an employee group that had raised money to fund the boy’s wish.
The group is known as WhEAT, or the Whirlpool Employee Activities Team.
WhEAT isn’t an employee resource group, so it isn’t found on the appliance maker’s website next to ERG’s like PRIDE or the Veterans’ Network. However, it still does work within the community.
How WhEAT began
It started with Whirlpool’s senior management looking for an opportunity for employees to group together to enhance engagement and come up with ideas for local charities.
Lisa Kiewel, a shared services operations manager at Whirlpool, said the group formed in 2008 – not too long after she joined the Benton Harbor-based company.
It’s grown considerably since its inception.
In its first year, Kiewel said the group of employees raised $2,000. Last year, about $15,000 was collected and donated to local charities. They do so by holding events like bake sales and can drives year-round.
Ashley Stickney, a shared services specialist senior at Whirlpool, said the group’s purpose involves engagement for the WhEAT team and includes the quarterly charity fundraisers.
“When I first started there weren’t positions because it’s just employee-run,” Stickney said. “Management doesn’t come in and run the meetings. We decided what positions there would be in the organization and that structure has led to more funding for charities.”
There are normally 80 to 90 people who make up the group, which fluctuates yearly. About 16 people handle the planning and organizational aspects.
Stickney said the organizations they choose to work with come organically. Other than the Make-A-Wish Foundation, WhEAT has collaborated with the Humane Society, Lory’s Place and Harbor House.
“A lot of times it’s something that somebody has a personal connection with in the group,” Stickney said. “Make-A-Wish was chosen because one of our team members had a child whose wish was granted to them.”
The charities and goals for the employee group have grown substantially from the beginning.
Kiewel said they would do small things within the office when the group began in 2008. But now it’s gotten to the point where they hold their own version of “The Amazing Race” that sends employees to different businesses in the Twin Cities.
The Make-A-Wish fundraising effort came about through the help of a week-long effort and donated goods from local vendors.
From Doughnut Mondays to Waffle Wednesdays, Kiewel said WhEAT eventually raised enough to have the local foundation match it and grant a full wish to Jasper.
Jasper’s family was put in touch with the foundation through a cancer clinic, who was then selected for the matched amount.
Dana Cooper-Hayes, a volunteer wish granter with Make-A-Wish, said the Whirlpool group set the bar with its send-off party Thursday.
“When we interview a child, we ask them everything they like,” Cooper-Hayes said. “We showed Jasper videos in ways of finding what lights him up. At one point he went up and hugged a Mickey Mouse balloon. With that in mind, Whirlpool did a great job with the party.”
Now the Huffs, a family from Benton Harbor, will leave for Disney World on April 5 for six days. While in Florida, they plan on visiting Disney World, Sea World and Universal Studios.
Amid the laughing children and pizza party, Jessica Huff, Jasper’s mother, said she was thankful for her son’s opportunity to see “The Happiest Place on Earth.”
“It means a lot after all he’s been through,” Huff said. “We had a couple close calls where we didn’t think he would survive the night. We know the reality of this cancer and appreciate everything that everyone has done.”
(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on March 31, 2017)