By Mary Kay McPartlin
Photography by Michael Lieurance
Operation Bootstrap provides food, shelter and care
Operation Bootstrap is a social service agency in Portage County staffed by over 700 volunteers. Executive Director Roseann DeBot helped start the agency in 1964 with Sister Paul Marie, and took over when Sister Paul Marie left.
We want to do things to take care of people who have fallen through the cracks,” Roseann DeBot says. “We’re the umbrella agency. We give out brochures and we’ll run down telephone numbers. If people are lost, we help them get back on track. Operation Bootstrap is the envy of the surrounding areas. We have eliminated duplication of services.”
Roseann, a member of Holy Spirit Parish in Stevens Point, and her staff assist people in need in a variety of ways. Coats for All provides coats to people, with no referral needed. The Ready to Work program helps people starting new jobs with necessary items like uniforms and shoes.
Bus passes are available through the Transportation Program at Operation Bootstrap. There is a shelter program and a program that helps people pay their utility bills. Assistance with household needs, including baby items, is addressed through the agency.
People can get health and grooming items from Operation Bootstrap, as well as assistance with prescription medication. Holiday baskets for the whole community start at the agency, and provide food for approximately two weeks, as well as presents for children and families.
The food pantry run by Operation Bootstrap is probably the biggest way the organization helps those who are less fortunate in Portage County. Without a doubt, faith is the heart of the organization itself and is what drives the volunteers, including Roseann.
“Most people here work because of their faith,” says Roseann. “I don’t know of anyone here who doesn’t have a lot of faith. We treat people with so much dignity. We try to put hope in every bag of food we give out.”
In 1964, people in need of shelter, clothing and food were coming to the churches in Stevens Point to ask for help. A local business leader offered $1,000 for the start of Operation Bootstrap as a way to ease the pressure on churches.
Sister Paul Marie talked Roseann into helping get the organization off the ground. “We were very low profile at first,” Roseann says. “We didn’t know how much we could do. People who needed help kept finding us, and people who wanted to help kept volunteering and supporting us.”
The first big project was helping people with hearing loss get hearing aids. Roseann remembers the first hearing aid recipient was able to go back to work and take care of his family. It was a joyful success for the organization and helped inspire the volunteers.
University of Wisconsin students have long been a source of support for Operation Bootstrap. The connection started with a telethon that students organized to raise money specifically for organization.
“University of Wisconsin students have always been our allies,” Roseann says. “They’re just wonderful.”
Roseann can relate to the call felt by young people at the university. She felt called to service at a young age while living with her husband in California, during his service in the Navy.
“Our pastor said we should be thinking what we could do,” says Roseanne. “He was challenging us to find someone who needed help and help them.”
The problem was Roseann and her husband lived in a community where people were self-sufficient and did not struggle to provide for their families. “We lived in Long Beach, Calif., and there wasn’t anybody who needed anything,” Roseann says.
She was able to answer God’s call when she was invited to take a course so she could work for Navy Relief. The six-week course correlated with Lent, which was perfect timing for Roseann.
“I really felt like this was what I was supposed to do. It was a very direct call by God,” she says. “I took the course, and I became a Navy Relief worker. You were given a lot of authority to help people.”
After her husband’s service was done, the couple came back to Stevens Point to start their family. Roseann continued her volunteer work in the community, joining the library board and searching for ways to provide activities and opportunities for children in need.
“Some of us thought we would start a children’s arts program,” says Roseann. “It was enrichment for less fortunate kids.”
Roseann redirected her focus after finding out from parents that lack of money for things like rent and food kept them from seeing enrichment activities as being important. Operation Bootstrap seemed the perfect way to help people get back on their feet.
Initially, Operation Bootstrap volunteers were Catholic and Lutheran. Roseann and the rest of the staff wanted a non-sectarian environment that would provide volunteer opportunities to those of any faith. With such a large number of regular volunteers, Roseann and Operation Bootstrap have avoided volunteer burnout.
“I always have a fresh crew of people ready to share their enthusiasm,” she says. “I used to be looking for someone in the group to take over for me. Finally, I changed my prayer to give me good workers, and God has answered that prayer. The experience at Bootstrap is you meet such good people. We even have people who were recipients that are now helping.”
Roseann learned the importance of service from her parents and the way they reached out to those who were alone or lonely or just needed support. She remembers how her father would help neighbors who experienced a death in the family to make funeral arrangements.
“My parents were very conscious of people needing help,” says Roseann. “At weddings, they would look for people sitting alone who had no one to talk to. Now I find myself doing the same thing when I go to weddings.”
Roseann and her husband Bill have been long-time members of Newman University Parish in Stevens Point. They appreciated the way families in the parish worked together to provide spiritual guidance for their children, as well as the university students. The goal for students was to prepare them to serve in their own parishes after they left the university.
“Everybody that belonged participated,” Roseann says. “It was a community of not just believers, but doers. Being in the parish enriched your faith. It propelled you.”
Roseann has built her life on service through the example of Christ’s service during his life on earth. “My faith has guided me,” she says. “I have tried to give my children and grandchildren three things: faith, learning tennis and skiing, and a love of reading. If they have those three things, they are armed for life.”
WOULD YOU LIKE TO HELP OPERATION BOOTSTRAP AS A VOLUNTEER OR DONOR?
Visit their website at operationbootstrap.org or call 715.344.1544