By Kris Leonhardt
MARSHFIELD — A man who has become synonymous with Marshfield’s Habitat for Humanity was recently awarded with AARP Wisconsin’s highest honor for volunteerism. Don Zais was presented the Andrus Award for Community Service during a ceremony held at the Marshfield Area United Way on Oct. 16.
“This award honors Don’s tireless commitment to making life better for others,” said AARP Wisconsin State Director Sam Wilson. “Through decades of volunteer service, Don has built up the trust, influence, and respect it takes to accomplish great things for those in need throughout the Marshfield area and across all of Wood County. He is a true pillar of his community.”
“It is really humbling for me to know that (out of) all of the volunteers in the state of Wisconsin — and I know there are a lot of them — that nomination caught their attention, and I was selected through the whole state of Wisconsin,” Zais said. “That is amazing to me. It really is.”
As part of the award, Zais was able choose an organization to receive a $1,000 donation through AARP. Zais decided to split the donation between the Marshfield Area Habitat for Humanity and the Marshfield Area United Way.
For the people he assists, Zais’ goal is to improve their “dignity and purpose by allowing them to either remain living in their homes after making needed repairs or — through his coordination — building them new, affordable homes,” said Marshfield resident Ed Korlesky, who nominated Zais for the award after working with him professionally and as a volunteer for years.
After retiring from a long career with Marshfield Clinic and Security Health Plan, starting out as a medical technologist and moving up through administration, Zais turned his attention to the Marshfield community.
“My wife and I, as we were working and raising our family, we did some minor volunteer things. … Once I retired, which was in 2000, my wife was on the original Habitat (for Humanity) board here in Marshfield,” Zais explained, “so when I retired she said, ‘I think you need to go and see what you can do with Habitat,’ so I went to a meeting in March of 2000. I walked out as the building chair, and I’ve been that until a year ago.
“That just became sort of my passion, Habitat. I had the skills. I had the organizational (abilities) that you need. Because you know when you are working with 25 volunteers, you have to find something for them to do, keep them working safely, and so on. I sort of became known as ‘Mr. Habitat’ in Marshfield.
“It’s been a real pleasure for me, and the biggest thrill that I get out of it for Habitat is we build a house. We work with the family. They have to put in ‘sweat equity,’ 250 hours per adult member. When it is done, the house becomes a home. That is my satisfaction, my gratification, because I see the look on their face.”
Zais also volunteers with Wood County Aging and Disability Resource Center, Marshfield Area Community Foundation, Marshfield Area United Way, Critical Home Repair, and his church.