DIXON – Ron Helfrich thought his leadership duties where behind him.
After retiring from the Navy as a senior chief petty officer in 1996, he took a job at the local post office to deliver mail to residents of his native Dixon.
But a couple of years later, duty called again; This time he was called upon to lead the post office’s Stamp Out Hunger food drive, in which postal carriers in more than 10,000 cities collect food left out by postal patrons. Held the second Saturday of May, it’s the largest one-day food drive in the nation, and Helfrich has been doing his part to help on the local level since 1999.
The former Navy officer also wasn’t done getting promoted: During his time at the post office, Helfrich, 61, rose through the ranks to postal supervisor, and he’s helped beef up the food drive’s donations, from about 1,100 pounds in his first year to nearly 15,000 in recent years.
So much for retirement.
“When I retired, all I wanted to do was be a mailman and just do my own thing.” Retirement wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, though, and Helfrich wanted to do more. “It had been a few years since I retired, and I was ready to step back up and take on a leadership role.”
Now that they’ve seen Helfrich’s food drive track record, other local organizations have approached him for help. He also is president of the Dixon Quarterback Club, which is the philanthropic wing of the Dixon High School football program; and was co-president of the Northern Illinois Youth Tackle football program for 18 years.
As for the food drive, Helfrich estimates that it helps about 700 families a year.
One of the ways Helfrich has increased the carriers’ haul over the years is by mailing out fliers ahead of the food drive, which residents often will attach to their donations. Most people donate canned goods, Helfrich said, and that can get to be quite a workout.
“You’re loading that in your satchel as you’re picking up mail, sometimes when you get a good walking loop where people are generous, that satchel can get pretty heavy by the time you’re done.”
After the food is collected and weighed, he uses his own 6-foot by 12-foot flatbed trailer to haul the goods to the Dixon Food Pantry. This year, that took four trips.
Helfrich said he enjoys seeing the people come together to support their community, especially when it comes to children.
“There are a lot of people who recognize that there are some people who are hungry as a result of no fault of their own,” he said. “People run on hard times. They have kids who, obviously, it’s not their fault that they are hungry, and they need assistance with food.”
Helfrich not only helps keep kids fed, he helps some of them work it off, too, by encouraging them to become more active in football.
The Dixon Quarterback Club does fundraising and organizes camaraderie events for all Dixon-based football teams, from grade school to high school. Head varsity coach Dave Smith approached Helfrich with the idea of organizing, through the club, special events for each varsity home game, such as Senior Night for the first home game and Youth Football Night for the second game.
“You’re always looking at these kids like you’re doing something to help develop them,” he said.
For the third game, Helfrich rounded up honor guards and worked with the local VFW and American Legion chapters to make a special night to pay tribute to veterans and first responders. Football players formed a human tunnel before the game for veterans to walk through.
“It’s a big thing, and the kids feel proud to do it,” he said.
Nights such as those are special for veterans such as Helfrich. He joined the Navy straight out of Dixon High School, and was at sea to help with the aftermath of the 1983 U.S. Embassy bombing in Beirut, Lebanon.
Wanting to serve in the military wasn’t always a popular choice for teenagers in the 1970s, with the aftermath of the Vietnam War still fresh in their minds. Today, things are different. Several recent Dixon High graduates, including some football players, have made the pledge to serve their country.
“There’s always an option that you can go into the military and get a good education, or a good trade, grow up and learn some leadership,” he said. “It’s all paid for, and you’re not going to have college debt.”
Helfrich’s most recent project was bringing back the Touchdown for TaTas charity football game, an event in which proceeds go to local health and wellness organizations to help fight breast cancer. He helped with what was thought at the time to be the last game 2 years ago, but with the help of local residents Sarina Venier, Rashaad Lane and Mandy Curia, the event was brought back this year, on Oct. 19, and was a rousing success.
“Everyone did a really good job of taking a big chunk out of what to be responsible for, and it worked out real well,” Helfrich said.
Like any soldier knows, a mission needs support from back home, and Helfrich has his. He credits his wife of 10 years, Chris, for providing plenty of support and tolerance for all the extra hours of volunteer work.
Helfrich hopes his volunteer work will serve as an example to others, and inspire them to do the same.
“If you’re in a position to do it, do it.”