Most young teenagers spend spring and summer playing sports, hanging out with friends, going to the mall or even pursuing a crush.
But for one Brookfield Central High School incoming freshman, those things were put on a back burner so he could cook up a gift for the VA Medical Center in Milwaukee.
14-year-old Ryan Elwing, a lifetime Brookfield resident, spent many hours since February leading up to the Waukesha County Fair raising a dozen turkeys at the home of his neighbor, Pam Poglitsch. Ryan had no experience in raising turkeys; he got the idea from seeing the turkeys at last year's fair.
But for Ryan, this venture was about much more than trying something new. It was about donating time and effort to help veterans and their families. From the start, he planned to donate any proceeds he received at auction for his turkey to the Fisher House of Wisconsin, a new structure being built at the VA.
The comforts of home
"It's a home away from home for veterans' families," said Kim Michalowski, director of the Bureau of Claims for the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs. "It allows veterans' families to come and stay absolutely free while their family members are being treated at the VA. We've been working on it for about four years now. We're trying to raise enough funds to completely fund the house without foundation support."
After Ryan learned about the Fisher House, he settled upon it as the beneficiary of the work he would be doing.
"I saw that they helped military families and provide for them, and I just thought it would be a great way to help them out," he said.
Elwing's father Mike served in the Navy for over six years, and he and his wife, Holly, have taught Elwing, as well as their other children Alissa and Michael, that volunteering and charity are important.
"I've always been talking to them about the military and about giving back," Mike said. "It's cool to see them following (that). They see how fortunate they have it."
Michalowski was impressed not only with Ryan's charitable act but also by his age.
"It was a wonderful thing for a young man to do; it made me proud to meet him," Michalowski said. "There's so many different kinds of people that are supporting the Fisher House and when a man that young takes the time to do something like that? His parents should be proud."
Stalwart against struggles
The process of raising a dozen turkeys wasn't easy for Ryan. He admitted there was a time when he lost his enthusiasm for the project. One warm, rainy day, seven weeks into raising his turkeys, Ryan was fed up with the smell while cleaning out the coop.
"It smelled pretty bad," he said.
But Ryan's parents convinced him to keep going.
Another hurdle came in the form of a municipal ordinance in late June, when city of Brookfield officials informed Ryan and Poglitsch they were not allowed to raise poultry on property spanning less than three acres.
"Less than a month away from the start of the fair, we had to move them to a new location just for the last few weeks," Poglitsch said.
The turkeys, and Ryan's coop-cleaning duties, were successfully moved to a neighbor with suitable property and, only a few weeks later, Ryan found his turkey winning a blue ribbon and being auctioned at the Waukesha County Fair.
Ryan's turkey ended up selling for $475, an amount that will immediately go to the VA's funding of the Fisher House. His turkey also ended up being judged the 15th best bird at the fair. Perhaps even more impressive is that two other birds raised by Ryan this year were scored even higher. Michael's hen earned second place at the fair, and Alissa's finished fifth.
"We're not farmers, but still the one bird got second at the fair, Alissa's got fifth and Ryan's 15th," Mike said. "So they did it better than some country folk."
The Fisher House will be able to house up to 16 families who will share a kitchen and living space but have their own private areas as well. Michalowski said the project has been in the works for about four years, and he hopes it can be finished by summer of 2015.
"It's a place where the families can come together and support each other," Michalowski said. "The community has really been stepping up. It's a really awesome project, and it's possible because of people like Ryan."
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