This past week, we at Wisconsin Microfinance received one of the largest single donations we have ever had in our eight years of operations, made in memory of Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Tom Kenny. We were so touched by Tom’s story, as relayed by his partner Julie and his colleagues, that we wanted to share it with you.
In 1975, a UW-Madison student who did not quite know what he wanted to do with his life did what so many other students searching for answers do: Joined the Peace Corps. Tom Kenney was sent to the Philippines and immediately fell in love with the country, the culture, and the people. A future director of the UW Lab for Animal Sciences, Kenney worked on a new process of artificially inseminating cattle that would be developed to help expand the livestock industry in Bohol, the 10th largest island in the Philippines. Upon returning to the US after another tour with the Peace Corps, Kenney began working with the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of Wisconsin-Madison, or RPCV, where he was tasked with getting new volunteers ready for integration into the Philippines and fundraising for the organization. He continued working for them for many years, becoming the group’s treasurer for over a decade and maintaining contact with the broad network of returned volunteers.
Wisconsin Microfinance’s link to Tom Kenney began just after the 2013 superstorm, Typhoon Haiyan. In the aftermath of the storm that caused $2.86 billion of damages and left millions homeless in the Philippines arose a global effort to repair the country and attempt to return it to normalcy. The effort echoed across every corner of the world, including the local Madison RPCV. Four Wisconsin members, including Kenney, reached out to fellow RPCV member and president of the Wisconsin Microfinance board, Tom Eggert, about setting up a new micro-finance branch in the Philippines to try and help mitigate the disastrous effects of the tropical storm. Due to this joint interaction between Wisconsin Microfinance and the RPCV, we now have a vibrant Philippines program that has positively affected dozens of Filipinos who are trying to rebuild their lives and their communities.
Tom, however, was diagnosed with cancer in this last year. Up until he passed, he was active in the community, working continuously to advance help and hope. He was in the process of becoming a volunteer for the American Cancer Society so he could drive patients to their treatment. He was still an extremely visible member of the RPCV, working with the board and assisting in any way possible. Upon his death, his family requested that people not send flowers, but instead send donations to the RPCV so that the money could be repurposed for positive change to the organization in which Tom had invested so much of his life in. The RPCV, knowing Tom’s ardent commitment to the peoples and communities of the Philippines, decided it would be best to donate that money to Wisconsin Microfinance due to his connection with our organization and our program in Bohol, a final gift from Tom Kenney to the people of the Philippines.
According to his partner, Tom had a unique capacity to subtlety push people towards working for the greater good. After Julie had retired from teaching, she had faced the same dilemma any retiree faces: What next? She recalls that Tom’s sage advice and a single question posed to her inspired her to found her own organization: The Days Foundation. The non-profit serves to empower the youth of the Delavan-Darien community, giving them the tools and mentorship needed to turn their own ideas into tangible progress for the community. One member wanted to get fresh produce onto food bank shelves and thus planted a plethora of gardens in the community, growing over 3000 pounds of healthy food for shelters and local families. Another started a litter cleaning service, and another started a clothes exchange. The lives impacted, ideas brought to life, and all of the resulting positive change brought would not have materialized without Tom’s support and his partner’s diligent work, showing that every act, no matter the size, may create larger ripples that reach even the farthest shores.
To wrap it all up, I leave you with one simple question. The same question that Tom Kenney based his life’s work and personal philosophies after. The same question he asked his partner that prompted her to start her own non-profit. The same question we should all ask ourselves every single day.
How are you going to use your talents to help the world?